Despite glitches, Census officials not worried about 2020 count

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Michele Paccione. 

Census Bureau officials say that despite recent delays, watchdog findings and cost uncertainty, they are pleased with where the count stands leading up to the 2018 dress rehearsal and 2020 main event.

As a result of ongoing budget uncertainty due to the continuing resolution, Census has announced the suspension of several programs, including the 2017 field tests and active block resolution, a way of validating address data without the use of human canvassers.

Census official Lisa Blumerman said at a March 30 meeting that the move will increase the in-field work load and require more enumerators, which "in turn, will increase the cost."

Blumerman, associate director for decennial census programs, also said that the opening of regional offices scheduled for March 31 has been delayed until perhaps May.

Recent oversight reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Commerce Department's inspector general dinged Census for its unreliable cost estimates, and recommended the bureau alter its business rules to allow enumerators to visit households during times of day when occupants are most likely to be home.

However, Census officials stress that these are manageable risks that are being addressed and pointed to progress on systems development and milestone deliveries.

Blumerman said the 2017 test of the nationwide self-response already "is very much underway." The test entails questionnaire outreach to 80,000 housing units, 61 percent of which are directed to the internet to respond, and the rest are first sent a paper questionnaire with the option of responding online.

Blumerman also said Census plans to award three IT contracts and to finalize the designs for many of the "IT solutions underpinning operations" later this year in advance of the 2018 end-to-end test, for which preparation officially begins in August. These solutions include the census website, mobile applications as well as in-office and in-field systems.

Census CIO Kevin Smith said that the bureau is currently running its new tech for business processes and is working with cloud operations on Amazon Web Services. Census will be evaluating vendors for its plans for "most of the data collection" in the decennial to "go through the cloud," Smith said.

Blumerman added that "we have the bulk of the tech, and the first critical phase, in the field now," and systems development is "on schedule."

Census Director John Thompson announced that Census cleared a "major milestone" in delivering the topics for the 2020 census to Congress in advance of the March 30 deadline.

However, the topics submitted to Congress, which include demographic questions on race, ethnicity and gender, came under fire from civil rights groups for omitting questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the meeting, Thompson confirmed that "we are not proposing to collect gender identity or sexual orientation on the American Community Survey or the census."

The final questions to be included in the census are due March 30, 2018.

Even as Census officials tout progress, budget questions loom large.

In terms of where the census stands as a priority in the Trump administration, Thompson said that, based on conversations with new Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a high-quality census is "one of his top priorities, if not his top priority."

The White House's fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint called for $1.5 billion in Census funding, which would fall between the $1.4 billion finalized for fiscal year 2016 and the $1.6 billion proposed by President Barack Obama in his fiscal year 2017 budget.

For fiscal year 2017, Thompson said that "the Senate came back with a mark that was $100 million below [Obama's proposal], and the House came back with a mark that was $125 million below."

"We have plans to operate on any of those levels," he said.

About the Author

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


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