Columnist

House Government Operations subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) jokes during a May hearing. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Ready or not?

Less than four years out, that is the question for the 2020 Census.

The answer, however, is not clear.

Census Bureau officials are more confident than others.

John H. Thompson, Census Bureau director: “I am proud to report today that we are on time and on schedule.”

Kevin Smith, Census Bureau associate director and chief information officer: “While much work remains, we are pleased with our efforts to date and remain on schedule for a successful 2020 Census.”

So was their testimony at a House hearing last week that heard less-convincing remarks from Government Accountability Office (GAO) officials and skeptical members of Congress.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has “identified a number of areas where the Bureau is at risk of cost and schedule overruns, perhaps incomplete census data, and information security breaches or the potential for that,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chaired the government operations subcommittee hearing. “The time is running out to address those.”

Despite the census officials’ assurances, GAO reports led to the bipartisan skepticism.

The 2020 Census will be heavily dependent on information technology. The latest gadgets and software are great when they work right. But if new technology is not ready when needed, that’s a problem – a problem the Census Bureau faces.

“This is clearly a major issue especially since several of the IT schedules are still being developed,” David A. Powner, the GAO’s director of information technology management issues, told the hearing. “Clearly schedule is a bright red risk at this point.”  He emphasized “still” and “schedule.”

The title of his written report to the committee underscored reasons for concern: “Uncertainty Remains about the Bureau’s Readiness for a Key Decennial Census Test.”

In order to be well prepared for 2020, the Census Bureau must meet deadlines before that. Right now, that’s questionable.

“Looking forward, there is uncertainty as to whether the Census Bureau will be ready for the 2018 end-to-end test, set to begin in August 2017,” according to the report.

Testing is crucial. But that’s something census officials have not always done to the extent necessary.

“The Bureau’s failure to fully test some key operations prior to the 2010 Census was a key factor that led us to designate that decennial a GAO high-risk area,” Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s strategic issues director, said in his report to the panel.

The 2020 Census is a mammoth technology project, involving more than 50 systems. About half of them, however, are scheduled for delivery after the end-to-end test begins or don’t have a firm delivery day, according to the Powner report.

“The Bureau has a history of poor IT delivery,” Powner added in his testimony.

Meadows was not pleased with this information.

“The fact that there is even a suggestion that IT products will go untested is unacceptable,” he said. “And no system or product, not a single one, can be allowed to be used to collect and process the American public’s sensitive personal information without being first being tested.”

One innovation will allow replies to census questions via the Internet. Yet, “while the large-scale technological changes for the 2020 Decennial Census introduce great potential for efficiency and effectiveness gains,” the GAO warns that it puts people “more at risk for phishing attacks [requests for information from authentic-looking, but fake, e-mails and websites].”

Some problems need more than technology.

Citing the GAO, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said people in 25 percent of households could not be contacted by Bureau counters in recent field tests, “even after six attempts.”

“For example, large, multi-unit buildings and locked or gated communities were most problematic, as enumerators were unable to enter the property,” Connolly said. “The Bureau’s software also made it difficult for enumerators to leave notes, which would help indicate what time of day a dwelling’s resident was likely to be present.”

Speaking of the enumerators, Smith, the bureau’s CIO, said “people are perhaps the most important component of this multi-dimensional process.” But they can also be “the weakest link – by committing human error in system administration, database administration, or programming, by becoming victims of phishing scams, or by visiting malware-infected Internet sites.”

The decision to innovate with technology, instead of creating new systems, contributed to a significant cost savings, according to census officials. The 2020 Census will cost $12.5 billion, a $5 billion savings over “the paper-and-pencil-based design of the 2010 Census,” Thompson, the Census Bureau director, said.

Census officials are “under no illusions that the task before us is an easy one,” Smith added. “In fact, it is very difficult.” But he’s confident “the foundation to carry out a successful census is in place.”