GAO to Census: Tighten up Internet response option

GAO to Census: Tighten up Internet response option

The Census Bureau’s plans to offer the public the option of an Internet-based system to respond to the 2020 decennial census will result in added convenience and yield better quality data, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

Yet the project is also fraught with challenges, including insufficient planning for changes in the Bureau’s IT infrastructure that will be necessary to support a “wide-scale Internet response option for the census,” according to the GAO in a recent report.

The Census Bureau has been planning to offer an option that would radically change the way its counts the population. The centerpiece of the plan involves the use of cloud computing to supply the on-demand services needed for handing the high-volume data processing and storage transactions of an Internet-based system.

In addition to the cloud services, features of the system would include design of an online survey that would allow respondents to submit information and  the capability to validate addresses either automatically against its master address file in real-time or in batches offline.

The Bureau also said it wanted to use social media-based outreach methods to maximize the use of the Internet response option and motivate households to it. Other online conveniences are being considered, including asking households to preregister via a separate online portal with a preference on whether they would like to receive email or text message reminders from the Bureau about completing the survey.

GAO was asked to review the feasibility of the project, including its planning discipline, estimated costs and key technology challenges. The GAO gave the Census plan mixed reviews:

GAO noted that Census planned to begin system readiness testing in October 2018, although it has not yet defined the time frames for when key cloud computing decisions need to be made. “Key questions related to estimating the Internet self response rate and determining the IT infrastructure needed to support it might not  be answered in time for preliminary design decisions in September 2015,” GAO said.

GAO also said the Census Bureau’s initial cost estimate of $73 million for the Internet option, “lacks reliability, which in turn calls in to question the reliability of the potential cost savings estimate of about $550 million to $1 billion [for the Internet response option].”

GAO warned that the “federal government procurement process can require a significant amount of time and agencies can face challenges in implementing cloud computing,” including meeting federal security requirements, acquiring the expertise to launch cloud services, certifying vendors and ensuring data portability and interoperability.

Lastly, said GAO, the Bureau faces gaps in technical staff competencies in the areas of cloud computing and  security integration and engineering that will have to be addressed in order to ensure it has the skills to support adding the Internet option.

To address the shortcomings, GAO recommended that Census develop high-level time frames for selecting, testing and deploying a cloud services in order to  guide its approach to enabling scalability for the 2020 census. GAO also recommended that the Bureau update its estimated costs of the Internet response option to” reflect changes in the program and to meet the characteristics of a reliable cost estimate.”

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