Lawmakers and watchdogs are going to stress out over the 2020 Census right up until it’s completed.
Last year, the big issue was timing; Census said it was on schedule to deliver its new IT updates, while the Government Accountability Office said it didn’t seem to have a set schedule to adhere to. This year, it’s cost overruns.
“It’s distressing, to see the 2020 Census look like it’s going the same direction as the 2010 Census,” House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Chairman John Culberson (R-Texas) said during the May 3 hearing. “So what will the total cost of the 2020 Census be?”
At nearly $13 billion, the 2010 Census was the most expensive count in U.S. history, and it cost the bureau about $100 per household. New systems like the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP) effort were supposed to reduce costs by digitizing much of the process.
The problem is that GAO doesn’t have enough recent information to accurately determine whether the Census is going over costs, according to Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s director of strategic issues.
“This has been a long-standing issue with the Census Bureau going back to 2008,” he said. “The last estimate was October 2015. We haven’t seen anything since then. So we can’t say the extent to which they’ve made progress on our recommendations or if the cost estimates have addressed our leading practices better than they have.”
Census Bureau Director John Thompson said that Census’ current estimate is $12.5 billion and that the bureau would work with GAO to improve its documentation so that GAO can understand everything in the estimate.
That’s been another issue GAO has had with Census — transparency. David Powner, GAO’s director of information technology, said Census needs to ensure GAO gets the information it needs in order to effectively conduct oversight more quickly and easily.
“One item that is very important is that when there are changes in the baseline costs, that needs to be disclosed quickly,” he said. “That’s why transparency is important.”
For example, he said that GAO recently did a report on CEDCaP that estimated a $300 million cost overrun. But because of uncertainties about the baseline, that estimate may be low.
“Because we had a baseline cost of $545 million that was in a GAO report and it went to $965 million, and if my math is right, that’s over $400 million. That’s $100 million. There’s more issues than that. But when baseline costs change, you need to know about it and help in our oversight,” Powner said.
Thompson said Census had been running an analysis on CEDCaP and had to wait until that analysis was finished and decisions were made before a lifecycle cost estimate could be performed.
“We’ve just finished that,” he said. “But we had to put in place the processes we were going to use. We also had to bring to bear with the vendor that we selected our requirements that we determined through testing.”
But Goldenkoff said there are other circumstances besides CEDCaP in which this could be happening, like changes to address canvassing and other IT processes.
“The last estimate was 2015. Now here it is coming up on two years later and there could be these significant cost increases. We’re not sure what’s in there and how much of any cost increases are being accounted for,” he said.
Powner said what GAO really needs are dashboards to present easy status updates on its systems.
“We have 50 systems to get ready, we have 50 systems to secure, we have costs. Those kinds of things should be transparent,” he said. “We have 25 systems ready, 25 remaining, how many have the appropriate sign-off on security? That dashboard-type of reporting should come to you readily. We have to work a little bit to get that information.”
Goldenkoff agreed, noting that institutional relationships with Census are the best they’ve ever been, and that monthly meetings are helpful, but more official documentation is needed for GAO to accurately report on.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) wanted to know where the bureau stood on cybersecurity initiatives, as concerns for personally identifiable information (PII) could cause underreporting during the collection of census data.
“We are not going about the cybersecurity challenge on our own,” said Census Bureau Chief Information Officer Kevin Smith. “We have public and private partnerships. We’re directly connected with the Department of Homeland Security to help assess what we’re doing and test what we’re doing and help make recommendations to make it more secure.”
In addition, he said Census is working with private sector vendors to perform penetration testing. He said that PII is one of Census’ major concerns, and conversations are currently ongoing on how best to protect it.
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.