IT fixes are needed before the next census, GAO says

New approaches are needed for the 2020 census to fix shortcomings in IT systems and deal with rising costs, according to to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. The report was published Dec. 14 as the House began debating a census reform bill. 

The census of 2010 cost about $13 billion, while the 2020 census may cost as much as $30 billion, the GAO report said. The average cost of the census has doubled, on average, in every decade since 1970.

Although the 2010 census was generally well managed, substantial planning and major changes are needed to improve performance in the next census, according to the report.


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“Simply improving current methods will not bring about the reforms needed to control costs and maintain accuracy,” the report states. “Because of demographic and attitudinal trends, securing a complete count has become an increasing challenge. As a result, a fundamental re-examination of the nation’s approach to the census will be needed for a more cost-effective enumeration in 2020.”

Potential focus areas include new data collection methods, changes in the tenure for the Census Director and alignment of the human capital, knowledge sharing and other functions to improve effectiveness and reduce costs, the GAO said.

In addition, the Census Bureau needs to fix IT glitches in critical systems that hampered the most recent census, the report said. For example, the system being used to manage the follow up of non-responsive households had slow performance and limitations on the number of users, resulting in a peak backlog of up to 12 million questionnaires.

To minimize this and other IT problems and to improve the bureau’s ability to manage future IT acquisitions, GAO recommended that the Census Bureau immediately establish and enforce a systems acquisition management policy that incorporates best practices in systems and software acquisition management.

The bureau also should develop an operational road map for the 2020 census that integrates performance, budget, methods, schedule and other information, and should post the road map on the Web and social media outlets for public comments.

Census bureau officials agreed with those recommendations, along with four additional technical recommendations.

Meanwhile, the Senate on Dec. 8 passed legislation that would incorporate management improvements in the 2020 census, and the House is expected to take up the measure this week.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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