Census pares down critical dress rehearsal

Shutterstock editorial image (by Gil C): State Census Bureau homepage. 

The Census Bureau's decisions to pare down operations and tests of IT systems to manage its finances in advance of the decennial count have extended to the critical 2018 dress rehearsal.

The 2018 end-to-end test, for which preparations and hiring are set to begin in less than a month, serves as the final, large-scale test of census operations before the 2020 main event.

The original plan was to test the 50-odd IT systems and new methodologies the bureau plans to deploy at three sites: Pierce County, Wash.; Providence County, R.I.; and Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, W.Va.

However, "to reflect the current design for the 2020 in accordance with" President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, Census will be performing only "peak operations" in Providence, said Associate Director for Decennial Census Programs Lisa Blumerman at the quarterly program management review July 11.

"Our funding and our plans for [fiscal year 2017] allow for us to do the testing in the three sites," she said. "As described in the president's budget, the end-to-end test will occur in one site." Blumerman added that the choice to conduct the full test in Providence was based on its mix of geographic and demographic characteristics.

All three locations, however, will still host the tests of Census address canvassing operation, which entails the door-to-door enumeration of addresses, "to mitigate the risk of moving to the one site."

In terms of funding, "both the amount and timing continue to be risks for the program," Blumerman said, adding that the bureau is preparing to handle “an increased field workload” as a result of previous budget uncertainty.

Another change to the 2018 end-to-end test is that Census is abandoning its plan to test its new "update and enumerate" method for counting housing units, and will instead fall back on its existing "update and leave method" supported by “technology we have already developed,” said Blumerman.

The difference, she explained, is that in the update/enumerate method, field staffers will update a given address, then knock on the door in an attempt to reach the residents and count the unit. In the update/leave method, enumerators still update the address, but will instead simply leave a questionnaire at the door for the household to fill out via internet choice.

These announcements come as Census adjusts to the temporary leadership recently announced Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Blumerman said Census still plans to release an updated lifecycle cost estimate, and is working closely with the task force convened by Ross, comprising staff from Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget and "outside consultants with prior Census experience."

She added the updated cost estimate will be released later this fall, marking a delay from former Census Director John Thompson's summer projection. Census will also release version 3.0 of its operational plan in the fall to reflect these changes, she said.

Despite the newest operational trimming, Blumerman said the bureau remains "on track for a successful census." Additionally, she noted that the bureau has awarded one of its three major IT contracts -- the decennial device-as-a-service contract – scheduled for award in this year.

The other two contracts -- one for fingerprinting and badging operations through 2020, and the other for IT equipment, services and support for Census offices -- are scheduled for award in the fall or later.

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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