2020 census tabbed as 'high risk' by GAO

The 2020 Census is one of three additions to GAO's 2017 list of high-risk government programs.

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The Census Bureau received a not-so-honorable distinction from the Government Accountability Office Feb. 15 when its 2020 census became one of three additions to GAO's 2017 list of high-risk government programs.

Census hopes to use technology on an unprecedented scale for the 2020 count, in the hopes of improving accuracy and saving upwards of $5 billion.

However, the bureau's decision to cancel the 2017 field tests of new technology concerns the congressional watchdog. On Feb. 15, House and Senate oversight panels discussed ways to keep the census on track.

Being on the high-risk list is not a new phenomenon for the bureau. The 2000 census made the  first of its five straight appearances on the 1996 high-risk list, and the 2010 census appeared on the list from 2007 to 2010. 

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.

"I stress that funding certainty will enable us to conduct the testing, securing, validation, documentation and planning that we have deemed -- and GAO has urged -- as necessary for risk mitigation and ultimately success for the 2020 census," Director John Thompson said in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

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.

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