Census advisers blast citizenship question

Concern over the addition of the citizenship question dominated a Census advisory committee meeting, but the bureau still has cybersecurity and operational challenges on its plate.

Census 2020 By Maria Dryfhout Stock photo ID: 790714156
 

On the day final questions that will appear on the 2020 census forms were submitted to Congress, members of the Census' Scientific Advisory Committee expressed strong displeasure with the decision to ask about citizenship on the decennial survey.

Traditionally, the bureau conducts extensive research and testing of proposed changes. But the late addition of the controversial question -- just days before the March 31 deadline -- brought even greater uncertainty to a bureau already facing critical deadlines.

Sunshine Hillygus, a member of the SAC, called the addition of the question "in no uncertain terms, an absolutely awful decision." She said she didn't find the rationale provided by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross compelling and added, "I'm still dumbfounded this decision is coming in at such a late date."

Even with Census gearing up to conduct a communications program across the country, Hillygus said, "I don't think it matters how much Census says we'll keep [citizens' data] confidential."

Doug Massey, another SAC member, added, "This is going to be a very inflammatory question."

Given the broad concerns that asking about citizenship will jeopardize the accuracy of the count, previous challenges facing the bureau "feel … quite minor compared to this recent change," said Hillygus.

Acting Director Ron Jarmin tried to offer some clarification, but he acknowledged the question and the backlash could impact response rates and Census operations.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," he said. "We don't have a lot of evidence to say that people don't respond to a citizenship question. That said, we don't know what it would look like in a census environment. There's no way of really testing what it's going to look like."

Enrique Lamas, the acting deputy director, added the bureau was conducting focus groups and surveys to "bring some data" to the question.

Lamas said that in the case of respondents who don't answer the citizenship question, "it would not preclude people from being counted on the census. "However, he added, "we would do follow up if they did not answer all the questions."

IT systems, cybersecurity

As the bureau enters peak operations for its dress rehearsal test, there are other critical operational challenges facing the bureau.

Al Fontenot, assistant director of Decennial Census Programs Directorate, said, "My major risk concern is cybersecurity."

"I think it has to be all of our biggest risk concern," he said.

Fontenot also announced the award date for the field IT contract, which has already been pushed back, will now come "in the August 2018 timeframe."

Kevin Smith, the bureau's CIO, said that an untimely cybersecurity incident could impact data collection and that the bureau is working with the intelligence community and private industry, including social media companies, to help prepare for these risks and boost public trust. The bureau is also worried about the potential for the viral spread of misinformation on social networks.

Additionally, the bureau is yet to complete development of all the system it plans to use in the course of the 2018 test. Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information Technology Division, said to date the bureau has developed 40 of the 44 systems needed in 2018.

Tim Olson, the bureau's associate director for field operations, said he's concerned about the bureau's ability to adequately staff up to the nearly half a million enumerators it will need in 2020.

"It was not hard in 2010 to attract people looking for employment," he said. "2020's an entirely different situation. That's what keeps me up at night."

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