Can Congress save the 2020 census?

As the Census Bureau has had to cancel or suspend programs to cope with budgetary constraints, Congress is going to have to ramp up funding and oversight down the home stretch to avoid a failed count.

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To cope with budgetary constraints and IT cost overruns, the Census Bureau has had to suspend or cancel programs designed to save billions of dollars.

With just three more appropriation cycles before the decennial count, census experts and the bureau's former director are looking to Congress to ramp up funding and oversight down the home stretch to avoid a failed count.

At the beginning of the decade, based on the bureau's early estimate, Congress placed a $12.5 billion cap on the full lifecycle cost of the government's largest civilian undertaking, the data from which helps direct about $600 billion in annual funding nationwide, according to a new study from George Washington University.

However, underfunding and repeated continuing resolutions -- along with well-documented IT cost overruns -- have prompted Census to cut or suspend some of its innovative programs, and the projected $5 billion cost savings now appears in jeopardy.

Former Census Director John Thompson told FCW he's keeping an eye on the outcomes of 2018 dress rehearsal and planned Census Bureau communications campaign to promote partnerships with localities as forerunners to a successful decennial.

The communications campaign and 2018 end-to-end test, which was recently scaled back, "will be incredibly important for them to get things going," he said.

As part of its $2-plus billion IT toolkit, Census awarded its Integrated Communications contract, worth a ceiling value of $415 million, to the marketing firm Young and Rubicam in 2016 to design an awareness program to promote self-response and limit expensive in-person follow-ups by enumerators. However, earlier this year, the development of the bureau's communications campaign -- among other programs -- was paused due to budget uncertainty caused by the continuing resolution.

"The Census Bureau has to get the appropriations to put money into the contracts," Thompson pointed out, adding the communications campaign is "the big, important thing to get money put into."

Making sure the communications campaign is a priority "will be key to boosting participation and keeping costs under control," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant on decennials dating back to the 1990 count.

If another continuing resolution is in store this time around, Thompson, who now serves as the head of the nonprofit Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, said he's not sure the Census is going to ask for any additional money, "because there's not a big difference between the actual appropriated level for 2017 and the House and Senate marks for 2018."

Lowenthal agreed that while there isn't a dramatic difference, she made clear that in her opinion, neither amount is sufficient. Programs such as the communications campaign and its local partnership outreach "will fall even further behind," she said.

Congress's commitment to an accurate 2020 Census will play out with its willingness to provide  catch-up funding.

"The really big thing is going to be the 2019 budget," said Thompson. Sufficient 2019 funding can help correct any technological or operational hiccups in the 2018 test, but recent operational changes "are going to increase the cost in 2019" over the $2 billion requested by the bureau in 2016, he added.

The bureau still lacks a reliable full lifecycle cost estimate. Census, along with a task force put together by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is working on developing a new estimate to be released in the fall.

Lowenthal noted it's not just funding that Congress needs to catch up on.

So far, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held two Census oversight hearings in 2016, has not done so in 2017.

A Capitol Hill source told FCW new  Oversight chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) plans to hold one sometime this fall, but a date has not yet been set.

The bureau has been operating without a presidentially appointed director since Thompson's retirement went into effect June 30.

A successful director, Thompson said, does not necessarily need previous Census, or even governmental, experience, but should be "someone who understands how to run a big organization ... that's doing a lot of high-tech work."

In a Washington Post column published Aug. 25, two former directors (though not Thompson) called on the Trump administration to appoint a new Census chief and asked Congress to ramp up funding for the decennial population count.

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