Workforce

Can Census staff up for 2020?

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Every 10 years, the Census Bureau hires hundreds of thousands of temporary employees to visit and count millions of households nationwide. However, the Department of Commerce Inspector General is raising concerns that Census is not prepared to adequately vet those hires before the 2020 population count.

All federal employees, temporary or permanent, are required to undergo at least a basic background check. And census data is considered sensitive to the point federal laws prevent the bureau from sharing collected information, even across government.

Staffing the decennial census is a massive undertaking. In 2010, the bureau had to conduct 3.8 million background checks to support the addition of almost 857,000 temporary workers, according to an OIG report dated Feb. 27.

Rising costs for the background check program, as well as inadequate quality assurance practices, pose risks to the bureau's ability to review potential hires. The IG report also found that the bureau is using time-and-materials and labor-hour contracts — totaling $16.7 million — to support background check activities. T&M and labor-hour contracts are "considered high-risk because the price is not fixed and depends on the number of labor hours that contractors need to complete the requirement," the audit states. "There is no incentive to the contractor to control the cost or ensure labor efficiency. Therefore, the government assumes the risk for cost overruns."

Beyond that, IG also found that Census did not adequately justify its decision to pursue this riskier contract type per Federal Acquisition Regulation rules.

The report also found that the agency was not following its own quality-control standards, that supervisors weren't adequately reviewing applicants and, in 500 cases noted by the IG between October 2014 and June 2017, supervisors approved their own recommendations without oversight.

Additionally, the IG found there are "no internal controls" to prevent employees from conducting background checks for applicants with whom they have a relationship.

In its response, Census stated the background check office had only four employees during late 2015 to early 2016, and has since changed processes to prevent supervisors from approving their own work.

Census has been operating without a permanent director since John Thompson’s retirement went into effect in June 2017. Ron Jarmin has been heading the bureau in an acting capacity.

"The department is actively working with the White House to identify candidates to come in and fill those positions," Commerce Chief Human Capital Officer Kevin Mahoney said at a March 1 Senate hearing. "Ultimately, I think we will be getting some recommendations from the White House that we’ll move forward on."

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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