So much congressional oversight involves Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Members put on their perfect-vision rearview microscopes and drill agency executives and employees about something that went wrong.
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) are getting ahead of things. They are taking a proactive view of their oversight of the next census, which is still six years away.
What they see worries them — a massive undertaking a year behind schedule.
In a letter released Friday to Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson, Carper and Coburn, the chairman and top Republican, respectively, on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said they are “very concerned about the instability of the 2020 Census schedule including delays in research, field tests, and projects.”
The Census Bureau did not respond to specific points in the letter from the senators, but Thompson said, “We greatly value their input and collaboration into our planning.”
The two lawmakers list a series of issues they say could potentially threaten the population-counting effort if not resolved.
The census temporarily swelled the government workforce by almost 1 million people for the 2010 operation. That number should be considerably lower in 2020 if technology plays the role that officials anticipate.
“As you know, each decennial census is an enormous undertaking that requires thorough research and testing as well as investments in information technology and human capital,” the senators wrote.
But the project is running well behind schedule, according to the senators.
Delays resulted in “postponing the decision on the final design of the 2020 Census by a full year, until September 2015,” they wrote, drawing particular attention to the noncompletion of cost estimating that is needed to predict whether projects will be on budget.
“If these problems persist . . . the execution of the census itself” could be affected, they warned.
Carper and Coburn praised Census Bureau officials for starting their planning early this decade. But those plans were hurt by last year’s sequestration budget cuts and the 16-day partial government shutdown in October. Those disruptions continue to affect operations seven months later and “played a role in the decision to postpone or suspend some research and testing projects,” the senators said. “If not managed correctly, these problems can quickly balloon and become costly.”
The 2020 Census promises to be the most technologically advanced ever. Residents will be able to participate online, which would reduce the number of employees needed. Presumably, each new census count should be the most technologically advanced, since technology always will have progressed over the 10-year period since the previous census. But the senators know it takes good planning to make use of technology, the kind of planning they said was not done last time.
The automation of certain 2010 field activities, “with millions of dollars committed to the effort . . . ultimately failed due to poor planning and it was among the reasons the last decennial census was conducted by paper,” they wrote.
Officials need to plan a way around rules of the Commerce Department, the Census Bureau’s parent agency, to employ a “bring your own device” strategy. This would allow the installation of software on employees’ personal electronic devices so that their mobile equipment can be used for some field operations.
The senators like that idea, which has been proposed by the Census Bureau, but said Commerce regulations may not allow personal devices to be used for official business except to get work e-mails.
The online option and the use of mobile devices would increase the safety of census workers by reducing the need for door-to-door canvassing. That would be good news for any of them who were chased by dogs during previous counts.
That’s a segue to this otherwise unrelated tidbit: 5,581 postal employees were attacked by dogs last year.
Demonstrating that everything in the United States has a week, if not a month, the U.S. Postal Service, along with veterinarians, insurance industry representatives and parts of the medical community, has declared May 18-24 to be National Dog Bite Prevention Week.
The Postal Service got the observance off to an early start last week when it released its 2013 “top 30” rankings of communities for dog attacks. (Actually, there are 62 places on the list, because some are tied.)
Houston has the dubious honor of first place, with 63 dog attacks on postal employees.
Seven cities, including Richmond, had the fewest attacks — 11 each. The District was near the middle of the pack. It was listed as 24th but actually placed 37th given the ties, with 17 attacks. Baltimore, in the No. 6 spot, had 46 attacks.
“There’s a myth we often hear at the Postal Service,” said Manager of Safety Linda DeCarlo. “Don’t worry — my dog won’t bite.”
Census counters, beware.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.