Despite budget uncertainty, Census remains 'on track,' officials say

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Michele Paccione. 

Budget uncertainty remains the primary concern of Census Bureau officials in advance of the critical 2018 end-to-end testing, and has led to trimming and alterations of planned programs. However, the bureau maintains it is still on schedule.

At a quarterly program management review, Census officials provided a review of the tests completed, as well as updates on the census's operations and systems readiness.

The "major risk, the thing that keeps us up at night," Lisa Blumerman said, remains "both the amount and the timing" of census funding for fiscal year 2017.

Blumerman told FCW that while it was too early to render judgments about what the bureau's budget allocation may look like, her meetings with the transition teams have been "very encouraging" about the 2020 census being viewed as a priority.

As it stands, Census operations for fiscal 2017 are current funded by a continuing resolution, and in the face of this budget uncertainty, Blumerman said the bureau has had to make "tough decisions" to cut or pause certain activities "that are not absolutely critical to the systems and operational readiness" for the 2018 dress rehearsal.

"There may be a window later in the year where, for some cases, increased funding could restore them without causing significant damage to the overall design," she said.

The bureau plans to pause its advertising programs, cut its program management activities and review its address canvassing operation, which Blumerman said will likely result in the hiring of more in-person address canvassers and erode some of the cost savings.

Blumerman also said her agency "will be delaying the opening of three of the six regional census centers," adding that the other three will be open in time for the 2018 tests and that the delay represents a "manageable risk."

The bureau has filled 45 positions during the first quarter of fiscal year 2017 and has created a 2020 Census workforce risk manager position "to get the right people in here and get them trained," said Blumerman.

Census also announced that its 2016 in-field address canvassing tests finished ahead of schedule, and previewed its plans for the 2017 address canvassing tests and the critical 2018 end-to-end test.

Upcoming major milestone dates include the March 10 commencement of address canvassing field staff recruitment and the March 31 deadline for submitting 2020 Census topics to Congress. The latter deadline comes one day before 2017's Census Day.

The two main mailing strategies for the tests will be "internet first," which promotes internet-based responses, and "internet choice," which will rely on the traditional, paper responses. Census officials expect 80 percent of respondents to use "internet first," and will use the 2017 tests to refine both processes.

The 2017 tests will also test systems readiness, mobile device applications and the new questionnaire and intelligent postal tracking system. They will debut the language detection capabilities of the Census Questionnaire Assistance, the telephone-based system for respondents who do not want to respond via internet or paper questionnaire. Census expects 5.3 percent – or 7.5 million – of 2020 respondents to rely on the telephonic system.

In October, Census called off its 2017 field tests, citing budget uncertainty. However, Census geography division Assistant Chief Michael Ratcliffe floated the possibility of incorporating the three nixed 2017 test sites into the 2018 end-to-end testing. "Their inclusion is completely dependent on funding," he said.

According to Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information division, system operations for the 2018 dress rehearsal are shaping up to very closely resemble those of the actual 2020 Census.

"We are working closely with our contractors ... to confirm the system of systems is performing to the operational expectation of the 2020 program," he said. "We're making good progress, and are on track to meet the 2018 end-to-end test timelines."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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