2019 in review: A tense homestretch for 2020 census prep

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It’s been an intense year of preparation for the 2020 census.

As the Census Bureau races to put the finishing tech touches on this “modern” count, the agency has been subject to plenty of questioning from Capitol Hill and incisive — and not always positive — audits from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Commerce inspector general.

The 2020 census is high stakes. It’s high stakes for all the regular reasons like representation and apportionment, and it’s high stakes because it’ll be the first time that the bureau uses a number of modern technologies at this broad scale.

The 2020 count will feature, for the first time, a widespread internet self-response option. And the use of modern technology goes beyond just collecting responses — the Census Bureau is also using a suite of new geographic information systems to help find where people reside and motivate them to participate in the count, for example. All in all, the decennial exercise is relying on 52 new or legacy IT systems.

Watchdogs with questions

In 2017, the census was added to GAO’s high-risk list and it remains there to this day. In a run of reports and hearings throughout 2019, GAO and the Commerce inspector general pushed the Census Bureau to do better on technology.

In April, for example, GAO testified that “significant work” remained for the Census Bureau to address its IT and cybersecurity challenges.

Specifically, as the oversight agency wrote in another report in May, the bureau needs to make sure its plans don’t just identify security risks but also clearly lay out the necessary steps and conditions for responding to those risks. GAO issued a number of recommendations to this effect, all of which remain open per GAO’s own website.

In June, an audit released by the Commerce inspector general found key cloud security weaknesses that put the project at “potentially catastrophic risk.” While these have since been fixed, the finding gives some credence to fears that the new technologies being used by the agency might not be working quite as intended.

One way to mitigate this kind of risk, as GAO testified in July, is to test new tech systems.

“Without sufficient testing across the range of geographic locations, housing types, living arrangements, and demographic groups, operational problems can go undiscovered,” Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s director of strategic issues, said at the time. “And the opportunity to refine procedures and systems could be lost.”

Most recently, in October, the Commerce IG announced that it will be conducting an immediate audit of the 2020 census’ IT security systems. Results from this audit have yet to be announced.

Census sticks to a positive outlook

Throughout all this, the Census Bureau itself has been nothing but positive about its abilities to conduct and protect the count.

“The 2020 Census IT systems are on track for a complete and accurate census,” the bureau said in an emailed statement to FedScoop. “We have successfully deployed all systems for the first three 2020 Census operations — 2020 Early Operations Preparation, Address Canvassing, and Peak Recruiting and Hiring. For these operations, all 27 planned systems were successfully granted Authority to Operate (ATO), fully integrated with one another, performance-tested, and deployed on schedule and within budget. Our remaining systems are on track and within budget for the 2020 Census.”

This confidence was echoed from time to time on Capitol Hill, too. “This isn’t the Census Bureau‘s first rodeo,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in July. “I don’t think anyone should be panicking.”


More 2019 in review:

The Pentagon’s JEDI cloud wars
2019 in review: A chief data officer in every agency
Agencies embrace RPA — AI less so
CDM program continues to wait for nod from Congress
Building more tech capacity on Capitol Hill

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2019 in review, 2020 census, Census Bureau, Cybersecurity
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