Oversight

GAO, Census differ on IT readiness

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Uncertainty over the impact the addition of the citizenship question and IT systems' readiness dominated a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing intended to discuss the fiscal year 2019 budget of the Census Bureau.

Despite the boosted funding for fiscal year 2018 and proposed increases to round out the decade, "significant uncertainties lie ahead" for the bureau, the Government Accountability Office's Director of Strategic Issues Robert Goldenkoff said.

At the April 18 hearing, lawmakers focused on how remaining uncertainties -- primarily the lack of testing around the citizenship question and worries of IT systems and cybersecurity readiness -- could impact further cost increases and even the accuracy of the constitutionally mandated decennial population count coming in 2020.

"Overruns have just got to stop," Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science Chair John Culberson (R-Texas) said in reference to the more than $3 billion Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross requested last October, $1.5 billion of which will go to IT systems.

Even with these uncertainties, "I think we are confident the $15.6 billion will cover the cost of the census," acting Census Director Ron Jarmin testified.

On the operations front, Census' dress rehearsal for the main event is currently underway in Providence, R.I. Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information Technology Division, has maintained the bureau has developed 40 of the 44 systems needed in 2018.

However, GAO's head of IT issues Dave Powner testified 30 of the 44 systems have been developed, and just eight have completed testing.

Jarmin said the bureau would have greater clarity on the readiness of IT systems and whether the bureau may end up needing more money at the end of the test. He noted that to date, response rates during the test have met expectations, coming in around 32.5 percent, and there haven't been any "showstoppers" that have disrupted testing. The questionnaires for the 2018 test do not include the citizenship question.

Census experts and Democratic lawmakers have been quick to point out the uncertainties and lack of testing surrounding the addition of the citizenship question could decrease response rates, in turn increasing enumeration costs.

Other lawmakers pressed Jarmin about what data and input led Ross to make his decision. Jarmin told lawmakers because of the lawsuits filed by at least 17 states so far, he couldn't provide details on certain aspects of the decision-making process.

To make sure respondents feel their data is safe, Jarmin did stress the importance of a communications and outreach program and pointed out one potential disruption to operations would be if Congress again can't pass a budget on time.

"One of the concerns we've been expressing all along is the threat of a continuing resolution at the beginning of fiscal 19," he said, adding the bureau is accelerating its scalability testing, communications program and associated staffing to limit any impact.

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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