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In the final stretch of preparations for the 2020 count, an agency watchdog report has found Census Bureau systems failed to meet “peak recruiting demands” during testing this summer — a claim that the bureau disputes.
The management alert from the Commerce Department inspector general marks the latest in a series of oversight reports that have scrutinized the bureau’s rollout of the first decennial count that will invite the majority of households to respond online.
The Nov. 21 IG alert found that the bureau’s Decennial Applicant Personnel and Payroll System (DAPPS) and its Census Hiring and Employment Check (CHEC) failed the final two phases of performance and scalability testing, and that as of July 8, “were unable to perform at the scale needed to support decennial census peak recruiting.”
With peak recruiting expected to begin in January, the Commerce IG said that time crunch leaves the bureau with “little time to resolve any additional issues discovered during retesting.”
If further testing doesn’t yield better results, the IG office said the bureau “does not have an adequate, documented contingency plan in place in case the proposed solutions do not work.”
The OIG recommends the bureau develop a formalized contingency plan that includes alternative methods to guarantee employees are screened, hired, processed and paid in a timely manner.
Successfully meeting these recommendations will matter the most during non-response follow-up operations, the most expensive part of the census.
Bureau backs hiring, payroll systems
Beginning in mid-May, up to half a million temporary hires will knock on doors all around the country to collect census responses from households that didn’t already fill out a questionnaire online, through the mail or over the phone.
Michael Cook, division chief of the Census Bureau’s Public Information Office, told Federal News Network that the Commerce IG report “appears to rely upon an outdated draft testing document and is no longer current.”
“We understand the critical nature of our hiring and payroll systems and are extremely confident that both systems will function as intended during peak 2020 Census operations,” Cook said in an email to Federal News Network on Monday.
The bureau’s current hiring and payroll systems, he added, have been in use since the 2010 Census. For 2020 count preparations, Cook said these systems successfully completed hiring and payroll operations for in-field address canvassing, where more than 34,000 temporary workers verified more than 50 million addresses around the country.
Al Fontenot, the associate director for decennial programs, said the systems used for address canvassing – which include payroll and route optimization – met load requirements. The operation, which ended last month, sent more than 34,000 personnel to verify more than 50 million addresses across the country.
“They worked together with each other. We were able to test their performance, not in a test environment, but in a real-world environment, and we deployed them on-schedule,” Fontenot said Nov. 7 during a National Advisory Committee meeting at the bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland.
For non-response follow-up, Fontenot said the bureau will need to onboard, at minimum, 230,000 temporary hires and as many as 500,000. To get that many hires, the bureau expects to recruit as many as 2.7 million applicants.
“It’s critical to the success of the census that they hire enough people to do that operation,” former Census Bureau Director John Thompson told Federal News Network in an interview Monday.
However, Thompson said the bureau has time to ensure both its workforce and its systems are ready for non-response follow-up.
“Right now, it’s not a critical point in time for the hiring and the processing of the non-response follow-up people. But it’s going to be a big issue if they don’t get their systems to scale,” he said.
Potential hiring obstacles
However, the bureau has acknowledged that recruiting will be more difficult with a low unemployment rate. Thompson said the bureau faced the same problem during the 2000 count.
“We worked with some labor economists and set the pay rates high enough so that they could attract people to come take it as a second job and expand the workforce,” Thompson said, extending their pool of applicants beyond unemployed and retired workers.
The Office of Personnel Management, in partnership with the bureau, also allowed federal retirees to take up part-time census jobs without having that work count against their annuity. Thompson said he expects to see a continued partnership with OPM for recruiting efforts.
“The big thing is going to be that they’re going to set their wage rates high enough to attract people to take the jobs. And the good thing is, they have some really good labor economists at the Census Bureau,” Thompson said.
For the 2020 count, the bureau expects 60.5% of households will voluntarily respond to the census.
By equipping enumerators will iPhones that optimize daily routes and streamline payroll, the bureau had seen a more efficient address canvassing operation.
The bureau has also come close to meeting its partnership specialist hiring goal after missing its June 30 deadline. Tim Olson, the associate director for field operations, said at the Nov. 7 National Advisory Committee meeting that the bureau has 1,469 specialists on-board, just shy of its goal of a 1,501 headcount.
Last month, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.) raised concerns about the bureau falling behind on its partnership specialist hiring.
“Efficient hiring is essential for cost-effectiveness, to ensure the Bureau remains productive and does not have unexpected last-minute costs,” Peters wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham.
Peters also highlighted some of the concerns raised by the Commerce IG and the Government Accountability Office, including the background clearance backlog and a high attrition rate for applicants during the fingerprinting phase of the screening processes.
In June, the Commerce IG office found that the bureau failed to secure the most privileged user accounts for its cloud IT infrastructure deployed for the 2020 count.