Census prep suffers under a CR or a shutdown

Experts say unprecedented budget problems are affecting preparation for the 2020 population count, and even brief funding disruption could jeopardize readiness.

John Thompson, director Census Bureau 2013-2017
 

Former Census Director John Thompson said that the bureau needs more money to prep for the 2020 population count.

As Congress decides whether to pass or punt on a fourth stopgap funding measure for fiscal year 2018, the Census Bureau is in the midst of a critical preparation period, during which even a brief funding disruption could jeopardize the count's readiness.

While the bureau is currently operating under an anomaly, which allows it to spend under fiscal year 2017 levels at an increased velocity, "at some point, they're going to need more money to get ready," said former Census Director John Thompson.

The Census Bureau is currently preparing for the 2018 end-to-end test in Providence, R.I., which serves as the dress rehearsal for the main event.

"This couldn't probably come at a worse time for the Providence planning," said Phil Sparks, co-director of the watchdog group the Census Project. "This is the critical last phase, always, of the preparation for the census, where planning has to ramp up, not pause or slow down."

The danger, Sparks noted, is that end-to-end test preparations should take place on a timeframe "to exactly replicate the 2020 census," adding, "we may not have even resolved the [fiscal year 2018] budget by the time they roll out the [fiscal year 2019] budget. "

Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant on decennials dating back to the 1990 count, said that the budgetary concerns facing the 2020 decennial are "unprecedented."

"I do not believe the Census has faced the funding challenges in previous decades it has this decennial," said Lowenthal, pointing to the limiting of tests, the repeated continuing resolutions, the congressional cap set at the beginning of the decade and greater reliance on technology.

The bureau is currently waiting to see whether Congress will fund the full $187 million additional request for fiscal year 2018 made by Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Lowenthal also noted that last year, when the government was operating under continuing resolutions until May, the bureau "initially brushed off concerns about delayed funding, then turned around and canceled, streamlined or delayed key tests."

"While the public narrative is that the Census Bureau can carry out the work it needs to under continued stopgap funding measures, I think we have reason to worry based on what happened last year," she said.

In January 2017, Census officials insisted the bureau was on track despite budget uncertainty, before landing on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list in February, then suspending and paring down operations months later.

Beyond the challenges posed by another temporary funding extension, the possibility of a shutdown "is clearly even far more serious than the other," said Lowenthal. "With the Census Bureau poised to launch the only full dry run of a markedly redesigned dress rehearsal, the consequences of a shutdown are severe."

Several lawmakers across the political spectrum have publicly voiced their opposition to passing another continuing resolution. Failure to pass even a temporary measure would trigger the first government shutdown since 2013, when government closed for 16 days.

"Even a week off the schedule makes a difference now," said Sparks. "And time can't be made up – they have a schedule to meet, and they're already behind schedule."

Thompson, who served as Census director during the 2013 shutdown, said a shutdown this late in the decade would make it "tough for them to recover in time for them to do the end-to-end test" as planned.

As a result, "if they had to shut down for a week or so," said Thompson, "they'd have to move the end-to-end test back."

And with Census preparing for "the only full dry-run of a markedly redesigned dress rehearsal," for which IT systems readiness, staffing and community outreach are already concerns, "the consequences of a shutdown are severe," Lowenthal said.

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