Census

Lawmakers hear from Trump's pick to lead the Census Bureau

Census 2020 By Maria Dryfhout Stock photo ID: 790714156 

Steven Dillingham, the nominee to lead the Census Bureau, told lawmakers that with the 2020 population count coming in less than 18 months, the most pressing challenges are IT acquisition, implementing oversight recommendations, improving public perception of the census and the hiring enumerators.

If confirmed, Dillingham will be the first permanent director of the bureau since John Thompson retired in June 2017. He will take over after the bureau's 2018 end-to-end test, the final in-field test of systems and operations before the decennial.  Dillingham has previous experience at statistics-focused agencies, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. He was serving in the post of director of the Peace Corps Office of Strategic Information, Research, and Planning when he was nominated for the top Census job in July.

"The integration of the IT systems [is] very important," Dillingham said at an Oct. 3 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. He added that there is "general agreement the 44 systems are being tested as part of the end-to-end test in Rhode Island performed very well."

The readiness of IT systems has been questioned by the Government Accountability Office. A public update of the systems used during the 2018 end-to-end was scheduled for September, but was postponed due to weather concerns. A new date is yet to be announced.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) warned that cybersecurity was a core issue. "If we had a breach of census data, it would permanently affect the capability of this country to gather essential data in the future," she said.

Public concerns about the security of census data are one of the bureau's two major "red" risk areas, and Census CIO Kevin Smith has attempted to allay these concerns. Dillingham said that data security, privacy and the encryption of data is "an issue we have to remain vigilant about."

Costs of the 2020 count already projected to exceed the cap Congress set at the beginning of the decade by $3 billion and possibly more.

Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said the costs were his "biggest concern." He told Dillingham his focus upon being confirmed should be maximizing response rates and ensuring data security and accuracy.

The bureau has awarded all of its major IT contracts for the 2020 population count, except for  an award for its printing and mailing contract, after the initial $61 million contract was botched by the Government Publishing Office.

Dillingham declined to comment on the controversial issue of the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 population survey, which is currently the subject of litigation.  At the outset of the hearing, Johnson sought to insulate Dillingham from questions on the topic.

"Dr. Dillingham was not at the Census Bureau when this decision was made, and even if confirmed, Dr. Dillingham will not have the ability to change this decision," he said.

"It would be problematic, I think, to take a public position on that question," Dillingham said later in the hearing.

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