Extra $3 billion might not solve all Census woes

Wilbur Ross testifies Senate confirmation Jan 18 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, shown here at his Senate confirmation hearing.

The 2020 census is in trouble.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testified to Congress on Oct. 12 about the need for a 25 percent increase in 2018 funding to support activities in the runup to the population count. Currently the bureau is being managed by career officials on an acting basis and a permanent director is still being sought.

Ross testified, "We had actually come up with a nominee, and then that fell away during the vetting process, so we're actively trying to recruit."

Oversight bodies and independent watchdogs are concerned that even if the full $15.6 billion Ross says is necessary for the census is awarded, there might not be enough time to adequately prepare for the massive operation.

"We are where we are," Ross said told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Ross said the canceled and suspended programs and technological shortcomings that factored into the cost surge "were undoubtedly compounded by initial appropriation constraints" as well as "a very complex structure" of procurement contracts.

IT spending on the 2020 census is projected to tally just under $5 billion, according to the bureau's new estimates, up from a $3.4 billion estimate from October 2015. An August analysis from the Government Accountability Office estimated Census's total IT costs would be at least $4.8 billion.

Ross testified that he was working with House and Senate appropriators on securing $987 million for fiscal year 2018 for 2020 census programs, almost a 25 percent increase over the initial White House's budget request for $800 million.

Asked by Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) if the Office of Management and Budget supports the $187 million increase, Ross answered, "That's what I understand."

"It's been brought to [OMB Director Mick] Mulvaney's attention by me," he said, adding, "I have not personally spoken with the president about it."

Ross noted that with the $3-plus billion funding bump, about 80 percent of census funding will come in the decennial's final years. And even if bureau gets the funding, "the rapid ramp-up in the future brings its own challenges to implementation and to cost control," he acknowledged.

Given the cancelled and suspended tests, as well as the systems still in need of development, watchdogs both inside and out of government have questions about whether the new estimate is high enough.

By GAO's count, only 39 of the 43 IT systems to be deployed in the 2018 dress rehearsal have completed development and testing. For 18 of those 39, no functionality has been deployed in the end-to-end test yet. All 43 lack authorizations to operate through the completion of the 2018 test.

Given the status of these systems, Dave Powner of the Government Accountability Office testified, "I'm not sure I agree with the secretary's comment that the systems delivery is on schedule."

Powner said that while it's possible to prepare and secure the myriad IT systems in time, "you pay a premium for doing everything late."

"I would have major concerns about the [$15.6 billion] and still hitting that, even with the 10 percent [in contingency costs], when you look at the IT management of this," he added.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle also pressed Ross on the communications and partnership programs and wanted to make sure they received adequate attention in the new cost estimate in order to overcome government mistrust and cybersecurity concerns.

Ross said that between the communications contracts and partnership programs, Census will spend about $750 million on community outreach and promotion, adding that he anticipated 800 partnership specialists to carry out the on-the-ground duties.

However, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta noted in a subsequent panel that the 2010 census used 3,800 such specialists across the country's roughly 3,000 counties.

Phil Sparks, co-director of the watchdog group The Census Project, told FCW that effective outreach efforts start earlier than the current schedule proposes.

To make sure Census conducts adequate outreach, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced the American Census Investment Act Oct. 11, which would appropriate $1.6 billion for the bureau in fiscal year 2018, plus an additional $300 million for outreach programs.

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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