2020 census lands on GAO

2020 census lands on GAO 'high risk' list

Data from the decennial census underpins almost every aspect of American life – from the number of seats in the House of Representatives to federal financial assistance and the demographic profiles of the population that guide policy decisions for federal, state and local governments.

The completeness and accuracy of that data is so critical that on Feb. 15, the Government Accountability Office added the 2020 census to its 2017 list of high-risk government programs. The list calls attention to vulnerable federal programs or functions that that put $1 billion or more in jeopardy, endanger public health or safety, service delivery, national security, economic growth or privacy.

Census hopes to use new technology on an unprecedented scale for the 2020 count, in the hopes of improving accuracy and saving upwards of $5 billion. When it cancelled the 2017 field tests of some of the new technology, however, it raised  concerns for the congressional watchdog.

The new technology includes:

  • Internet-based questionnaires.
  • Smartphone-based apps for data collection.
  • Address verification via satellite imagery analysis rather than street-by-street field canvassing.
  • Re-engineered automated case management system.
  • Spanish language versions of the bureau’s mobile app.
  • Expanded use of existing government administrative records to answer census questions.

GAO Managing Director of Strategic Issues Chris Mihm cited three IT areas of concern that led to the census's high-risk list appearance: the internet response option's availability, the 11 systems delivered by the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing initiative to centralize data collection for all census activities as well as the use of mobile devices.

"They have a series of innovations that are very important … and can have huge cost savings implications, if they work out," Mihm said. "They need to make sure that they're able to have these innovations … be able to work together in concert" by the 2018 end-to-end test.

Census has repeatedly cited budget uncertainty -- due to funding continuing resolution -- as the driving reason to cancel the tests.

GAO is worried that Census's reliance on untested tech could derail its progress.

"If we weren't worried, we wouldn't put it on the list," said Gene Dodaro, GAO's comptroller general.

The report also noted Census must ensure information security and oversight for the IT programs still being finalized, that its cost estimates are unreliable and that its expanded use of administrative records, while "promising," depends on the accuracy of the data provided by other agencies, which "the Bureau has no control over."

GAO also reported that "over the past three years, we have made 30 recommendations to help the Bureau… however, only six of them had been fully implemented as of January 2017."

GAO is not the only independent watchdog looking at Census activities. The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Commerce announced Jan. 31 plans to audit Census's regional office leasing as well as its background check preparedness.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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