The Saga of the 2020 Decennial Census Continues

Published: July 26, 2017

CENSUSDOCGovernment PerformanceInformation Technology

Among various scale backs in preparations, budget struggles, lack of leadership and rising costs, this piece attempts to provide a view on the current status of the 2020 Census and the next steps the program is anticipated to take.

Next month will begin the 2018 end-to-end tests for the Decennial Census, a full rehearsal run for the actual count in 2020. However, the Bureau of Census under the Commerce Department is facing multiple obstacles in the areas of budget dollars, program changes, rising costs and oversight pressures.

As time winds down to the new decade count, various decisions have been made to scale back testing and preparations planned for this year, citing reasons of budget uncertainty. According to a recent GAO report, one of those decisions includes a recreated approach to how the Bureau will build out its address list. The initial concept relied on a two-phased, in-office method using computer imagery and third-party data resources in order to avoid door-to-door address canvassing prior to the decennial census and save $900M. However, the Bureau changed this method in March 2017 with the suspension of the second phase, which will now require increased in-field address canvassing to resolve any address conflicts presented in the first phase. The GAO implored the census division to provide a cost and quality evaluation for this new decision.

Another change by the bureau also trims the planned 2018 end-to-end tests. Originally, three sites were selected to test the IT systems and new methodology of the 2020 Census: Pierce County, WA; Providence County, RI; and Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, WV. Now, the Census has chosen to only run a full test at the Providence location in order to save time and resources.

Moreover, the bureau’s plan to implement a method in counting housing units by updating a given address and then knock to attempt to reach residents to confirm the change will now be done in such a method that the enumerators will update the address but only leave a questionnaire at the door to be filled out online. Again, this decision was a resource-driven one.

Who can blame the Census Bureau for its frugal methods? The office faces an uphill battle for budget resources.

According to census expert, Terri Ann Lowenthal, the Census will need more than a $300M increase in FY 2018 from FY 2017 numbers to effectively maintain the quality of its program. Nonetheless, the President’s FY 2018 budget requests an increase of $128M for the 2020 Census. The office does not fare too much better in the appropriations committee, its approved markup as of July 13 only adds an additional $10M above the President’s budget. Former Census Director, John Thompson, who vacated the position seven months ahead of his December 2017 end date, confirmed in a recent article by Government Executive that the bureau is being shorted approximately $200 million in 2018 for end-to-end testing activities and tools.

What’s next for the looming census?

A majority of the census funds and work in FY 2018 will be dedicated to “field testing, perfecting and scaling the full suite of integrated operations and systems for the Decennial Census, most notably via the 2018 End-to-End Census Test. In FY 2018, the Redistricting CEN-3 Data Program, the Local Update of Census Addresses, many of the geographic programs, and the field office and IT Infrastructure build-out will be underway,” according to the agency’s budget request.

Per a presentation of a quarterly 2020 Census Program Management Review held on July 11, the overall program has various risks it must also focus on in the upcoming months. The highest risks include external factors for administrative and third-part data as well as threat of cybersecurity incidents that could affect the implementation of the 2020 Census. Lower ranked risks include system scalability and cloud implementation.

Perhaps the largest IT system investment in the census program is the data collection and processing systems for the survey, referred to as Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP). This program adds more work for the Census Bureau to focus on in the coming months. CEDCaP has faced scrutiny in its cost overruns, lack of coordinated schedules and a rise in interdependent program risks, according to a previous GAO Report that placed the 2020 Census on its “High Risk” List. Interestingly enough, the appropriations committee has put a clause in its markup that threatens to withhold up to 50% of information technology funds for the Census 2020 mission in FY 2018, including those for CEDCaP, until Commerce submits an expenditure plan to the GAO and Congress.  

On the contract forefront, the Census Bureau has awarded a majority of its IT-centered contracts in preparation for the count. Fingerprinting, help desk services and field IT deployment work remain to be awarded, according to a presentation slide from the program management review:

 Source: 2020 Census Program Management Review

Despite a full plate and looming deadline, Associate Director Lisa Blumerman is optimistic that the census remains on track for successful implementation and completion, per Federal Computer Week. An updated cost estimate is now promised later in the fall and I will be sitting by eagerly awaiting with popcorn in hand at the next twists and turns in this 2020 Census saga.