Commerce Secretary: Higher Census 2020 price tag needed for ‘significant course correction’

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Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross pleaded his case Thursday on Capitol Hill for an additional $3 billion to fund the 2020 Census lifecycle, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are concerned the money will simply fund a repeat of history.

Testifying during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, Ross explained the department’s new $15.6 billion cost estimate includes $1.2 billion for “unforeseen developments” and a request for a $187 million adjustment for fiscal 2018.

“These funds would allow us to make a significant course correction to keep crucial programs on track, and provide much needed financial oversight and better management of the Census Bureau,” Ross said. “The Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce will be held accountable to manage the 2020 Census efficiently while maintaining the highest quality.”

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That course correction includes addressing the 40 percent cost overrun of the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP) program, and the delayed development and testing of 43 systems needed for the 2018 End-to-End that started in August.

“We believe that we will be able to get the job done if we get the additional funding that we have requested,” Ross said. “In terms of lessons learned, one of the things we intend to do as we go along is keep careful track of further improvements that should be made in subsequent censuses. I think with only having 30 months between now and the 2020 decennial, making radical changes would probably guarantee that we didn’t get it right.”

Bending costs

At nearly $13 billion, the 2010 Census was the most expensive count in U.S. history, and it cost the bureau $100 per household. The bureau attempted to deploy mobile devices for its 2010 count, but the project ultimately failed, and Census was forced to add extra employees at the last minute to help process paper forms.

Census Bureau Director John Thompson stepped down from his role in June after serving nearly four years on the job. The position is still vacant.

Ross told committee members the higher $15.6 billion price tag is still lower than the $17.5 billion estimated if the 2020 count had to revert  back to paper, and he said the department needed to “bend the curve” of rising costs by investing in IT.

“Using existing technology helps to mitigate the costs, but there are still significant risks and challenges as modifications are made to integrate the systems and to provide specific functions that are unique to the census,” Ross said. “These systems will continue to be tested to ensure scalability and flexibility when the 2020 Census goes live on April 1, 2020.”

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) told Ross he didn’t share the secretary’s optimism.

“This is all part of the problem,” Hice said. “We get promises that are never delivered on. Now we have cybersecurity promises, commitments, the most robust thing we’ve ever seen before that is simply based on conversation, not on tests. It looks to me like we’re going to go back to the same thing that happened in 2010, when we were promised all kinds of modernization, but it was a faulty IT program so we ended up a paper-based census. I don’t see how we can proceed with this any further without going back to paper-based and just be honest with what we’re dealing with.”

Hice wasn’t the only one concerned about IT shortfalls. Carol Rice, Commerce’s assistant inspector general in the Office of the Economic and Statistical Program Assessment, told committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) that what needs to be done today is to get the 2020 count’s IT infrastructure in place.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we were in 2010, when they had to revert to a paper-based operation at the last minute,” Rice said. “They had some infrastructure there and they had to build on it, and it was a problem. There were backlogs, office sizes weren’t compatible for a paper operation, it was just a trickle down of all the problems. They got it done, but it wasn’t pretty.”

David Powner, GAO’s director of information technology management issues, said he wanted to see the delivery and security of the 43 systems needed for the 2018 End-to-End test.

According to GAO, the Census Bureau reported only four of the 43 systems as completed and tested. Of the remaining 39 tests, the bureau reported it had “deployed a portion of the functionality for 21 systems to support address canvassing for the 2018 End-to-End Test; however, it had not yet deployed any functionality for the remaining 18 systems for the test.”

Powner said someone needs to be managing those systems and their delivery, integration and security on a weekly basis.

“It’s highly likely not everything will be in the 2018 End-to-End test,” Powner said. “What does that mean? That means they’re going to have to test it post end-test. It’s not that it can’t be done, but you’re compressing testing schedules; there’s higher risk, there’s more cost and that type of thing.”

Powner said the bureau hired an integration contractor in summer 2016 to help with this task.

Money, information, power

Other areas where contracting is a focus is in advertising the census.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) pointed out to the Commerce secretary that nowhere in his testimony did he talk about fully funding an advertising contract for increasing public responses and strengthening follow-up survey methods.

“The census has to start early, so partnerships with NAACP, like La Raza [National Council of La Raza], hispanic and LGBT communities, you have to fill those contracts and they haven’t been filled with people yet as I understand,” Maloney said. “Nowhere in your testimony do you propose fully funding the ad contract as originally planned, let alone increasing the contract to start addressing the later start and tracking these cost drivers that you identified in public outreach.”

Maloney on Wednesday introduced a bill along with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that would give Commerce the $187 million it’s seeking for fiscal 2018.

Rep. William Macy Clay (D-Mo.) also was concerned about counting hard-to-reach communities, and asked what Census was doing to ensure they were included in 2020.

“The census is about three things: money, information, power,” Clay said. “No community or state wins if we fail to get this right. Sadly, in some parts of our nation, residents have a high level of distrust for the federal government, which makes them less inclined to take part in the census.”

Ross said Census was drawing on databases from the Postal Service, Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, to ensure the bureau can count everyone.

He also said Young & Rubicam, an advertising agency that handled the 2010 count, is in charge of the 2020 communications, which means an added benefit of institutional knowledge.

“They have retained 15 individual firms that specialize in either different forms of media or different ethnic groups,” Ross said.

Ross said the communications budget is $500 million, compared to the $350 million spent in 2010 [about $420 million adjusted for inflation], but there is also an additional $248 million for outreach partnerships.

“When you consider how many total households there are, that’s quite a bit per household, and if you take out of that the ones that are easy responders, you’ll find we’re spending an enormous amount per household on the ones who are difficult to reach,” Ross said.

Ross said Census is also estimating a lower percentage of voluntary responses in 2020, at 55 percent compared to 63.5 percent in 2010.

“We’ve assumed despite massive communications … that a higher percentage of the population will still need the foot soldiers clogging around ringing doorbells, Ross said.

Chairman Gowdy’s parting advice for Ross was to get the message out that if the public is going to pay more, it will be for an “A-plus product.”

“Reassure our fellow citizens you want to do it the right way and you want it to be accurate, and you could use their help,” Gowdy said.