The Census Bureau is re-examining the possibility of allowing citizens to respond to the 2010 decennial census via the Internet, a reversal from its earlier assertion that it did not have the time to develop an application and could not adequately protect information from cyberattacks.
Comment on this article in The Forum.The bureau is analyzing methods for the public to answer questions for the decennial census online, according to a congressional source. Tom Mesenbourg, acting deputy director at the Census Bureau, told lawmakers during a briefing on June 27 that he was comfortable with providing an Internet application to the public because the bureau already conducts a number of surveys online, a source said. But Mesenbourg said he could not guarantee that Census could develop an online response feature for use in the 2010 count, but he said the bureau was seriously studying it.
The bureau is revamping how it is conducting the 2010 census since it announced on April 3 that it was dropping its plan to use handheld computers to collect data from the 108 million households it estimates will not mail in the paper census forms. The bureau scrapped the plan after coming under sharp criticism that the project was behind schedule, over budget and might not work as planned. Census now is developing what it calls a replan, which will includes reverting to using paper forms when visiting those households that have not returned their forms.
The bureau did not respond to a request for an interview, but did provide a comment via e-mail: "As part of the replan, we're revisiting all data collection operations, and looking again at the Internet. We're simply considering it as another tool in our toolbox of collection methods. The objective is not to divert scarce resources into an Internet option, so [information technology], which has extensive Internet data collection expertise, will take the lead in testing and security. If feasible, they will integrate the Internet with our already existing data capture."
The decision to consider online submissions is Census' latest reversal on using the Internet to collect responses for the2010 count. The bureau originally included Internet functionality as part of its Decennial Response Integration System contract, a system that will collect data from all sources -- census forms, telephone interviews, the Internet and, at one time, handheld computers -- and provide the information to other bureau systems for analysis and processing. The bureau said DRIS will improve accuracy and timeliness by standardizing the data.
Lockheed Martin Corp. won the DRIS contract in September 2005 for $553 million. At the time, Census seemed in favor of using the Internet to supplement paper and telephone responses. In a 2004 report on the contract, the bureau estimated that 25 percent of respondents would go online to submit their census forms. The Government Accountability Office testified in March 2006 that 9 million households would submit forms via the Internet.
In May 2006, however, the bureau announced that the Internet response option was no longer a requirement of the DRIS contract, which was facing delays. Louis Kincannon, former Census director, told a Senate committee in June 2006 that based on research, the bureau did not believe Internet data collection would significantly improve the response rate or reduce the number of households temporary Census employees would have to visit to collect data. Kincannon said tests conducted in 2003 and 2005 (before the DRIS contract was awarded) showed that the Internet did not appreciably increase the response rate. He also cited concerns that securing the Internet application would be difficult.
But Brenda Farrell, acting director of strategic issues at GAO, told the same Senate panel that the security risks could be mitigated, noting that other agencies had managed to successfully use the Internet to collect data from the public. Farrell added that the bureau did not develop a formal business case outlining why it removed the Internet requirement from the response integration contract.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee again raised the issue in July 2007 when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., asked the bureau why it was not pursuing an Internet option. At the hearing, former Census deputy director Preston Jay Waite said the Internet might discourage people from responding to the census if they feared that their personal information might be compromised by hackers.
At the hearing, Judie Dunlap, Lockheed Martin's program director for the 2010 census, said it was possible to add Internet capability and an online application would be fairly easy to develop. But Kincannon repeated his assertion that the risks of doing so would outweigh any benefits.
In April, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., asked Steve Murdock, director of the Census Bureau, to re-examine the possibility of using the Internet, along with other options for increasing the response rate. Murdock promised that the bureau would take it under consideration.
In June, at a joint hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., questioned the idea of experimenting with online responses with so little time before the decennial census kicked off. Maloney said the Commerce Department was acting in an unprofessional, unscientific manner to reduce the number of households requiring nonresponse follow-up because of the failure of Census' handheld computer contract.
Murdock said the bureau should consider the Internet option only if it did not affect the timing and accuracy of the census.