Census grapples with IT and (now) paper challenges

In addition to questions over systems readiness and cybersecurity, the first-ever online census is now working to straighten out issues on the paper-based side of the decennial population count -- all against a ticking clock.

By Gil C shutterstock ID 175538990
 

In addition to questions over systems readiness and cybersecurity, the first-ever online census is now working to straighten out problems on the paper-based side of the decennial population count against a ticking clock.

The Government Publishing Office, which the Census Bureau tasked with awarding this contract, is looking to remedy its failed first try. Cenvo, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, is unable to execute on the $61 million contract it was awarded in October 2017.

While the 2020 count will rely more heavily on technology than any previous census, the printing and mailing operation still represents a major part of the operations. So GPO is now taking another whack at awarding this single award contract through an August 13 request for proposal.

The solicitation sets a maximum value of $140 million and — for a Census Bureau already facing a tight schedule, budget concerns and ongoing litigation — a Sept. 10 deadline for vendor responses.

At the program management review August 3, associate director of the decennial census programs Al Fontenot said GPO hopes to award the contract "by November," more than one year after the initial award and less than 18 months before Census Day 2020.

This "will ensure there is no negative impact on the printing and mailing operation and the overall 2020 census," said Fontenot.

In a statement, the bureau said it "concluded that because of the constitutional mandate to conduct the 2020 Census, it was in the public's interest to terminate Cenveo's contract."

"After several rounds of good faith, aggressive, arm's length negotiations, the parties reached agreement to settle the matter for $5.5 million," the statement reads.

GPO's Office of Inspector General concluded that "GPO contracting officials' mishandling of the award displays a high degree of disregard for GPO practices and procedures" and that "GPO did not do an adequate job of protecting the interests of the government when it awarded the 2020 Census printing and mailing contract to Cenveo." The IG memo was first reported by NPR.

In an Aug. 13 blog post, meanwhile, Census CIO Kevin Smith followed up on previous attempts to allay public concerns about the security of data collected in the population count, which remains one of the bureau's two major "red" risk areas.

"I want to stress that our team has been doing everything we can to protect the data, but we are intentionally not saying everything we are doing… to not give the opposing team, adversaries wanting to discredit the federal government, an advantage," he wrote, adding, "[o]ur team is comprised of the Census Bureau, the Census Advisory Committees, federal oversight, the Federal Intelligence Community, and our industry partners."

Also on the tech front, Census has now awarded all of its major IT contracts. However, the bureau still has work to do in developing all the systems it needs before 2020.

The Government Accountability Office and the bureau have long differed on the criteria for what constitutes system "readiness," and GAO recently flagged a software issue with the bureau's data management reporting system. With the 2018 end-to-end test set to wrap up at the end of August, the bureau will need to launch — and secure — eight additional systems between now and the start of the 2020 count.

"We know we have a lot of work to do before the 2020 census," said Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information Technology Division, at the most recent program management review. "And all of us staff members, regular employees or contractors, are committed and dedicated to deliver all needed systems and infrastructure that meet the capability requirements… for an immaculate and efficient census."

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