Census calls off 2017 field tests, cites funding uncertainty

Bureau officials said the decision to cancel the upcoming tests is not ideal, but it is "the best overall operation remaining amid current uncertainty" about fiscal 2017 funding.

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Michele Paccione.

Less than six months before field tests were scheduled to begin, the Census Bureau has called them off, citing budget uncertainty.

The news comes one week after lawmakers questioned Census Bureau Director John Thompson about the status of critical IT components and tests in the run-up to the 2020 population count.

In June, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee expressed concern that Census was behind schedule, and the Government Accountability Office published a report that characterized the bureau's financial estimates as unreliable.

In a memorandum, bureau officials said the decision to cancel the upcoming tests is not ideal, but it is "the best overall operation remaining amid current uncertainty" about fiscal 2017 funding.

Thompson wrote in an Oct. 18 blog post that proceeding with the testing as scheduled would "all but guarantee wasted efforts and resources" and threaten the projected savings and readiness of the 2020 headcount.

"Based on what we know now, the proposed funding levels require us to prioritize other activities in 2017 rather than expend the resources necessary to conduct the two field tests we had planned," he wrote.

The tests were scheduled to take place in Puerto Rico, North and South Dakota, and Washington state and were to provide a real-world proving ground for Census' unprecedented use of technology in the 2020 enumeration. Specifically, the tests would have involved internet-based questionnaires, smartphone-based data collection and various new enumeration methodologies.

Additionally, the Puerto Rico site would have tested the multilingual capabilities of the bureau's custom mobile application, Compass. The final decision for which languages will be included in the internet self-response methodology is scheduled to be made in 2018.

"It remains critical to test Spanish-language systems and nontraditional addressing in Puerto Rico and the ability to list and enumerate at nontraditional addresses on tribal reservations," the memo states.

Bureau officials left open the possibility of including the field tests in end-to-end testing in 2018. That is the final major test for the 2020 census, which is scheduled to begin April 1, 2018, but requires resource deployment as early as mid-2017. End-to-end testing includes checking the non-ID operation, the 2020 Census Questionnaire Assistance program and cloud-based online data collection.

Thompson said the bureau must now prepare to conduct only the "activities necessary to ensure we are best prepared" for the 2018 and 2020 operations, such as integrating, securing and testing systems.

The memo states that bureau officials still plan to hold the national sample self-response test beginning April 1, 2017.

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