Lawmakers press on Census finances and leadership

John Thompson, director Census Bureau 2013-2017 

John Thompson's last day as Census director was June 30.

Congressional watchdogs from both sides of the aisle are concerned about finances at the Census Bureau and want to see an updated cost estimate to reflect potential cost overruns.

The bureau is undertaking a wide-ranging modernization of its technology and methodology with the goal of saving about $5 billion on the 2020 census, compared to repeating the 2010 approach.

In a June 29 letter, Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Government Operations subcommittee leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), raised concerns about potentially unreliable cost estimates, pointing to critiques from the Government Accountability Office and other watchdogs.

Former director John Thompson’s retirement went into effect June 30.

Lawmakers fear a similar pattern to the tech modernization efforts attempted last census, which, "despite the Bureau's assertions that everything was progressing smoothly," failed and resulted in a $12.5 billion price tag for its 2010 enumeration.

"These issues come at a time of significant agency transition," they wrote. "It is critical that the Bureau and your successor address these potential cost overruns."

For the 2020 count, GAO has estimated that Census’ IT costs likely will approach $1 billion north of initial projections, and the agency has canceled or suspended several programs in the lead-up to the 2018 dress rehearsal.

At a May 3 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Thompson testified that the bureau has, since the last estimate, hired certified cost estimators to produce a more accurate estimate and worked "really aggressively" to improve its official documentation. He said Census would release an updated lifecycle cost estimate this summer.

In their letter, the lawmakers request a current cost estimate and associated documentation, as well as the changes in estimation methodology from the Bureau by July 10.

Although Commerce has tapped two longtime Census employees to lead the bureau on an acting basis, lawmakers and watchdog groups have pressed the Trump administration to move swiftly in naming a Senate-confirmed, permanent director.

On the Senate side, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) urged the Trump administration in a June 28 letter to “make fully staffing the Census Bureau a priority.”

Johnson and McCaskill are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee, which is responsible for confirming a new director. Thune and Nelson lead the Senate Commerce Committee, which has broad oversight power over the Department of Commerce, where Census is housed.

The Bureau currently lacks a director and deputy director, both presidentially appointed positions, though only the director requires Senate confirmation. Additionally, Commerce lacks a deputy secretary and an undersecretary for economic affairs, two positions responsible for Census oversight.

The senators write that a continued stretch without a permanent director "could further jeopardize the 2020 Census program moving forward."

"We understand that your administration has faced historic delays in filling senior positions in the executive branch," they write. "However, swift action is needed to ensure public confidence in the Census."

A Commerce spokesperson told FCW in May the department would name a full-time replacement "in due course." Officials did not respond to follow-up inquiries on the status of the search.

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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