Spotlight on the Census
Census enters 2018 facing more questions than answers
For the Census Bureau, 2017 was filled with uncertainty.
Early in the year, the government's largest civilian undertaking was tabbed as "high-risk" by the Government Accountability Office. What followed included operational changes, contracting missteps, lagging IT systems readiness, a lawsuit, the resignation of its director, other leadership questions and even a late-in-the-game pitch to Congress to appropriate more than $3 billion in additional funding.
Entering a critical 2018, preparations for the constitutionally mandated decennial count need to ramp up and support, or else Census risks a failed count — and the margin for error is shrinking rapidly.
"At some point the rubber meets the road, and that point is now," said Phil Sparks, co-director of the watchdog group The Census Project.
In the first three months of 2018 the bureau faces a dress rehearsal test for the 2020 main event, major IT systems delivery deadlines and delivering its final set of survey questions to Congress.
However, perhaps Census's most pressing issue is out of the bureau's hands: its budget.
In October, Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross requested an additional $3.3 billion in funding through 2020, including a $187 million bump for fiscal year 2018.
Multiple sources close to Census told FCW the funding difference would come from other Commerce accounts. The department did not respond to requests for confirmation.
In the event Census doesn't get at least the $187 million Ross requested for fiscal year 2018, "that would be catastrophic for the bureau," said Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund.
A Senate Appropriations Committee spokesperson said the panel "is looking at and reviewing the request," with a decision likely due next year. Census experts fear that further delays and continuing resolutions could jeopardize the Census Bureau's ability to hit important deadlines.
"The side effect, especially in the latter years of the decade for the census, is devastating," said Sparks. "It really disrupts funding and planning."
One high-profile example of such planning disruption is Census's decision to pare down its 2018 end-to-end test, which serves as the dress rehearsal of operations for the 2020 count, from three sites to just one: Providence, R.I.
And "if the CR stretches much longer, the Providence site might also be jeopardy," Sparks cautioned. Currently, the government is operating on the basis of a continuing resolution through Jan. 19.
The bureau is operating under an "anomaly," which allows for increased spending velocity under the $800 million proposed for the bureau's decennial programs in fiscal year 2018 by the White House.
Sparks said while they can increase spending speed in the short-term, "the anomaly Congress has given them basically ties their hands behind their back" because the bureau is stuck at an amount "that's way below what they need."
Former Census director John Thompson pointed out with just two years of preparation before 2020 rolls around, ""there's not much time left."
"If they want an accurate census, they're going to have to start paying for it," he said.
"In the next Trump budget," Sparks said, "if there isn't a multi-billion funding [for fiscal year 2019], I think you can basically declare this census will be in danger of failing."
The Census Bureau declined to comment to FCW for this article.
Where is the cost-saving tech?
The extra $3.3 billion represents a steep cut into Census's original projection of savings via high-tech methodologies, many of which are yet to be fully developed and tested.
Of the 40-odd systems Census plans to deploy in 2020, several critical ones -- including mapping software, call assistance for respondents, internet self-response and data processing systems -- have delivery deadlines in advance of the 2018 test's commencement of "peak operations," which begin in March.
"If the Census Bureau hits any significant technological bumps in the road during the dress rehearsal, that will be very worrisome," said 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.
For the indispensable tech features like the internet self-response, Census "better start [them] on that day," Thompson said. "If it doesn't, it means there's some pretty serious problems with their automation."
In Oct., GAO reported that just four of Census's 40-plus systems had completed development and testing, and zero had authorizations to operate through the 2018 test. Census has disputed these numbers as too low.
Dave Powner, GAO's director of IT management issues, said that if the bureau misses delivering these IT systems in time to test in a Census-like environment in 2018, that would mean it would have to conduct testing after the dress rehearsal to make sure they can go live in 2020.
Late system delivery and testing does not mean "it can't be done" in time for the decennial, Powner pointed out. "It's just that it costs more money."
Sparks stressed that the need to delivery IT systems to conduct the test underscores the need for funding.
"At some point you need to move boldly and robustly for the IT, and that hasn't happened this year," he said.
Who's minding the store?
Also facing the Census is an absence in permanent leadership.
Both at the top of the bureau and in its lower ranks, Census "has been caught up in the lack of appointments that this administration has been slow on, which is too bad because this is one responsibility that has deadlines coming up," said Vargas, who serves as a member of Census's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations.
Following Thompson's June retirement, longtime Census employees Ron Jarmin and Enrique Lamas took over — and are still serving — as acting director and deputy director, respectively.
Thompson expressed confidence in both men's ability to lead the bureau, but added, "at some point, if the census is a priority for the administration, then the administration ought to nominate a director that is confirmable by the Senate."
Lowenthal said Ross's interest and "hands-on" approach to managing the decennial has been encouraging. Currently dual-hatting as Commerce's undersecretary for economic affairs and its acting deputy secretary (to whom the Census director has traditionally reported), Karen Dunn Kelley has also played a key oversight role.
"I think that the secretary and the undersecretary fully appreciate that the 2020 Census will take place on this administration's watch," Lowenthal said. "And I can't imagine that they will not do everything that they feel is reasonable to make sure that the census is successful, for that reason alone. It will be part of this administration's legacy, and part of their legacy."
It's not just high-ranking positions lacking permanent employees, however.
The program office tasked with overseeing the integration contractor for Census's 40-odd IT systems had vacancies in 35 of 58 positions as of Oct. 31, according to GAO's most recent count.
Why it matters
It's worth mentioning that census data is critically important to how federal, state and local government services are delivered. The decennial data is used to allocate seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states. It's also the basis for the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds annually to state, local and tribal governments to deliver services like roads and infrastructure, education, health care and more.
As the bureau focuses its resources and attention on making sure IT systems are ready to go for the dress rehearsal, Census advocates want to make sure the bureau doesn't overlook the importance of its communications and partnership programs.
In the most recent lifecycle cost estimate, Commerce estimates the 2020 count's self-response rate will be 55 percent — an 8.5 percent drop from 2010's figure.
Thompson emphasized the importance of scaling up the partnership program on a national scale well in advance of 2020 to make sure people know the census is taking place, and to get trusted community voices assuring them their responses — and data — are safe.
"If you look at what's going on in terms of trusting government, it's lower than it's been in a while," he said. "They've got to get out there and start really, really working on that."
In addition to the functionality of the IT systems, Lowenthal said she'll be keeping an eye on the response rates from the public.
Other political matters could also complicate response rates, as well as Census's ability to another major deadline: By March 31, 2018, the bureau needs to deliver the final questions that will appear in the decennial forms.
Lowenthal said Office of Management and Budget missed an internal deadline of Dec. 1 to issue a decision as to whether or not to include questions of race and Hispanic origin as separate or combined questions.
In February of 2017, Census released data showing a combined question leads to increased response rates, but "the fact that the statistical policy office missed its internal deadline... tells me that political appointees within OMB have taken an interest, and are carefully reviewing, and might not agree with the recommendations the statistical office made," she added.
OMB, which has final say over the decision, did not respond to FCW's request for comment on the question lineup.
Even more concerning to response rates, Thompson said, is any consideration of adding a question to the long-form questionnaire on immigration status, as the Washington Post reported was floated in a draft executive order.
"If they push to put a question on immigration status, that's going to be just terrible," said Thompson. "The only reason you put that on is because you want to suppress response from certain people."
Sparks added: "You could just declare the census failed if they do that."
Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.
Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.
Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.
Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter