Can the Census Bureau really deliver $5 billion in savings?

Unexpected cost overruns to critical systems and decisions to cancel or suspend various programs risk eating into the $5 billion in savings proposed by Census Bureau for its 2020 count.

Shutterstock editorial image (by Gil C): State Census Bureau homepage.
 

After the expensive 2010 census, with its IT boondoggles and acquisition chaos, the government promised to do better in 2020, by cutting a $5 billion from the projected cost of conducting the 2020 population count.

Now much of that savings is at risk, according to the top Census official and the government watchdog that oversees the department.

Unexpected cost overruns to critical systems and decisions to cancel or suspend various programs, including the 2017 in-field testing, risk eating into the hoped-for savings, Census director John Thompson testified.

The Government Accountability Office has long harbored such doubts. In June 2016, the GAO reported that Census's October 2015 estimate that it could pull off the 2020 count for $12.5 billion "cannot be considered reliable" because the estimate did not meet best practices and did not fully account for risks associated with the new technologies.

At a May 3 hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the census, Thompson testified that the Census Bureau's "best estimate" for the total lifecycle cost of the 2020 count is still $12.5 billion, which would save more than $5 billion compared to repeating the paper-based 2010 methodology. But he acknowledged that the $5 billion figure "might change over the summer" when Census will release its new, official lifecycle cost estimate.

Dave Powner, who leads GAO's IT oversight, testified that pulling off 2020 Census with the degree of technology Census has proposed is "doable, but the issue is, at what cost?"

Powner said the three areas representing "major concerns" for GAO are cost growth, schedule and security.

"The bureau's track record for delivering IT for previous decennials is not good," he said. "Unfortunately, we see similar issues for 2020 -- late starts, schedule pressure and not enough transparency."

Powner testified that he thinks that total IT costs are going to be far higher than anticipated.

"I think the IT costs are going more than likely be $1 billion more than [the estimated $2.4 billion] if I did simple math," he said.

Powner said the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP ) program, which will centralize data collection for all census activity, overran its initial cost estimate by about $417 million. He also noted that Census awarded an $886 million IT integration contract that was absent from the October 2015 estimate, as well as a call center contract worth about $500 million.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the subcommittee, said that "overruns of this scale are just unacceptable… We need to get this under control."

Thompson noted that decisions -- made due to budget uncertainty -- to increase in-field address canvassers, as well as to cancel the 2017 field tests and advertising in advance of the 2018 end-to-end test, "will result in increased costs… if we don't adjust to them."

Thompson said Census has worked "really aggressively" to improve its official documentation and transparency, and explained that CEDCaP overruns occurred, in part, because "the first estimate was created by subject matter experts rather than certified cost estimators," a problem that has since been resolved.

Powner said that GAO "has concerns" the bureau's 50-odd systems may not be "ready between August of this year and early 2018" for the 2018 dress rehearsal.

Culberson also raised questions about the cybersecurity of Census's IT systems, about two-thirds of which contain respondents' personal information, plus the 400,000 mobile devices to be used by enumerators.

Census CIO Kevin Smith said the bureau is "working very tightly" with vendors, as well the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, to ensure data security, and would also be open to working with the FBI.

Powner noted that the coordinating with DHS and the CIO Council are "key" for sharing cyber best practices, adding that "you do typically have a federal CIO out of the White House" -- a position that is currently unfilled.

NEXT STORY: Culture clash in FAA's drone push

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.