Census says Internet option is too risky

Lawmakers and Census officials spar over the benefits of a Web-based survey

Census Bureau officials say the decennial population count is too important to trust to the Internet. But some lawmakers disagree.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee, said he is appalled that the bureau is stuck in the 20th century and refuses to use the Internet. He said 70 percent of the country’s population is connected to the Internet, and about 50 percent has broadband access.

On the other hand, Preston Jay Waite, Census’ deputy director, said the bureau has a constitutional responsibility to finish on time and produce data that is as accurate as possible. The Internet poses many risks that outweigh the potential benefits, he said.

“Anything that would cause the census to have a major snafu or failure is not just something you can just say ‘too bad.’ It gets to the heart of democracy,” Waite said. “If people don’t believe in the credibility of the census because the data is messed up, you have a serious constitutional issue. That was hanging over our heads when we thought about this process. We have a one-time shot with a fixed deadline and no room for failure.”

As the war of words heated up during a recent hearing, bureau officials said they intended to stick to their plan and not offer an Internet option for the 2010 count.

“Sen. Coburn said if we were a modern place we would use the Internet, but we are not willing to take unnecessary risks,” Waite said. “It is possible for serious-minded people to disagree.”

Coburn, too, appeared far from ready to give up his position. He threatened to put an earmark in the Census appropriations bill that would require the agency to pay Lockheed Martin, the contractor for the Decennial Response Integration System, to at least conduct an Internet survey test in 2010
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“They could do a pilot so by the 2020 census they are online,” Coburn said after the hearing, during which he lambasted the bureau’s director, Louis Kincannon. “I can’t think of a reason not to do the census on the Internet. I don’t think anyone else would disagree with me.”

Coburn added that technology is not the problem, and the potential cost savings and efficiency gains are too big to ignore. “I’m offering you a challenge today,” he said. “It is unconscionable not to do at least a portion on the Internet. It is not a technology or security issue. It is a lack of vision.”

Census tested the use of the Internet for the survey in 2001, 2003 and 2005 before awarding the integration system contract. Each time, Waite said, the response rate and potential savings did not outweigh the potential risks, which included identity theft.

“We were hopeful to do the Internet because it seemed like a good thing,” Waite said. “We had hoped for an increase in response [because] that part of the population that does not fill out the paper form would be motivated by the Internet. But two things happened: We didn’t find that population, and we didn’t get a larger response rate.”

Kincannon said the 2003 test offered paper and Web options, but the 2005 test offered only a Web option. “Overall, our response rate in the 2005 test was 5.7 percentage points lower than with paper,” he said.

Coburn agreed with the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Government Accountability Office officials and Lockheed Martin officials who said there is still time to include the Internet as an option for filling out the 2010 census survey.

“If Census said, ‘Add the Internet for the dress rehearsal for January 2008,’ it would not be a feasible thing for us in that amount of time,” said Julie Dunlap, Lockheed Martin’s program director for the 2010 census.

“We may be able to do a prototype,” she added. “However, the Internet from a technology perspective for the 2010 census could still be accomplished. Technically, an Internet solution would be fairly straightforward for us to develop.”
Internet is a no-go for 2010 censusThe Census Bureau hired Mitre to determine whether the agency should use the Internet to gather data for the 2010 census. Mitre analyzed the results of three tests and concluded that the agency has no sound financial basis for offering people the option of filling out the census survey on the Internet because it would cost the government $22 million to do so and the potential savings would be less than $5 million.

Mitre also concluded that: 
  • The overall response rate would not increase.
  • The Internet would add substantial perceived and perhaps actual risks.
  • The bureau would have insufficient time to perform a large-scale test for the 2008 dress rehearsal before the 2010 census.
— Jason Miller

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