Clock ticks on census prep

As the clock ticks down to the 2020 census, lawmakers and watchdogs want to make sure the Census Bureau is on schedule to count the entire population.

2020 census lands on GAO 'high risk' list

As the clock ticks on preparations for the 2020 census, lawmakers and watchdogs want to make sure the Census Bureau is on track to count the entire population. Given the bureau’s tight, immovable timeframe to have all its preparations and IT systems ready to go, the Government Accountability Office is worried about the bureau’s scheduling.

In a recent report, GAO acknowledged Census has improved its scheduling reliability in recent years, but the bureau still has work to do as it nears the home stretch for the 2020 enumeration.

Specifically, auditors stated that “none of the three schedules we assessed include

information about what levels of resources, such as labor and equipment, are required to complete the planned work.”

Auditors also noted that, per the bureau’s management plan, the inclusion of this information should have already begun, “[b]ut it has not.”

Instead, bureau officials told auditors they are “estimating the cost of activities using a software tool separate from the current schedule management tool.” But auditors found problems with this tool, noting, “bureau managers do not have reliable visibility with it on the efforts of the lowest level of detailed activities.”

“Reliable scheduling practices are essential for managing tradeoffs between cost, schedule, and scope,” GAO stated, noting that unreliable scheduling led to the census being placed on the 2017 high-risk list, and it is “threatening the bureau’s ability to deliver a cost-effective enumeration.”

Auditors also noted the bureau has not carried out a schedule risk analysis to determine “the possible effects of threats, opportunities, and general uncertainty to a program’s schedule that results in a quantifiable level of confidence in meeting the program’s key milestone dates.”

Without this analysis, “the Bureau cannot determine the likelihood of each project’s completion date; how much schedule risk contingency is needed to provide an acceptable level of certainty for completion by a specific date; which risks are most likely to affect the schedule; how much contingency time each risk requires; and the sequence of activities that are most likely to delay the project,” GAO stated.

The Department of Commerce agreed with GAO’s findings.

The three major risk areas facing the upcoming census, according to the bureau, are the public perception of the bureau's ability to safeguard response data, the prospect of a cybersecurity incident as well as late changes to the 2020 census form.

The report comes after a July 18 closed-door briefing on Census IT systems with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, bureau officials, GAO’s Director of IT Management Issues Dave Powner and representatives from three major Census Bureau contractors — Pegasystems, General Dynamics IT and T-Rex.

Following the briefing, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) told FCW that lawmakers want to make sure Census and its contractors are able to hit their milestones as the count enters the critical home stretch.

The bureau has also had hiccups in the 2018 field test involving some of its new technology. In another recent report, GAO flagged concerns over data accuracy due to a software issue in the census data management reporting system.

Also complicating the tight schedule is the pending change in leadership.

More than a year after the previous director retired, Steven Dillingham, who headed statistical agencies in the Departments of Justice and Transportation, was tapped for the permanent director role, replacing current head Ron Jarmin, who has led the bureau in an acting capacity since June 2017.

The Census Bureau director post requires Senate confirmation, and political division surrounding the 11th-hour addition of a citizenship question to the count -- opponents of which say it will lead to depressed response rates and increased costs -- could impact a speedy confirmation.

A deluge of court documents, thousands of pages of which were filed as part of a series of lawsuits surrounding the citizenship question, revealed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had been pushing for the addition of the citizenship question since shortly after his confirmation, apparently contradicting his March congressional testimony that the Justice Department “initiated the request.”

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