Oversight

GAO: $15.6 billion census cost estimate not reliable

Census 2020 By Maria Dryfhout Stock photo ID: 790714156 

The Census Bureau bumped its lifecycle cost estimate for the 2020 count up to $15.6 billion last year -- more than $3 billion more than initially projected. But the Government Accountability Office has, again, taken issue with the reliability of the estimate.

As Census prepares for its two biggest fiscal years of funding, GAO specifically cited concerns over the credibility, accuracy and documentation relating to the count's most recent estimate.

On the accuracy front, the report stated that the biggest shortcomings were in the documentation and explanation of variances between planned and actual costs as well as proper adjustment for inflation.

Because of inadequate documentation, auditors said they had trouble replicating the calculations made to reach the $15.6 billion figure and could not trace certain cost elements to supporting documents.

"In general, some documentation was missing, inconsistent, or difficult to understand" in the most recent cost estimate, auditors stated.

This isn't the first time Census has been dinged by GAO for unreliable cost estimates.

Upon taking over the Department of Commerce,  Secretary Wilbur Ross made a point to more accurately estimate census's total costs, convening a team of public and private sector consultants and appearing on Capitol Hill multiple times to stress the importance of an accurate cost and, later, explain the need for an extra $3 billion.

With about a year and a half before the start of the 2020 main event, GAO also raised concerns over the reliability of Census's scheduling.

Additionally, the Census Bureau is also facing a series of lawsuits pertaining to Ross's addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 forms, a move that has raised other concerns about increased costs. The tentative trial date is set for Nov. 5.

In its response to GAO's findings, Commerce disagreed that the updated cost estimate is unreliable.

Despite the department's objections, "until GAO's recommendation is fully implemented, the cost estimate cannot be considered reliable," the watchdog stated.

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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