Census Needs to Straighten Out Plans for 2020 Internet Option, Watchdog Says

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Five years before the Census is expected to implement its Internet-response tool, GAO has already noticed a handful of glaring blunders.

The Census Bureau is attempting to introduce the 2020 headcount to the digital age by offering the public the option of responding via the Internet.

Still five years away from that lofty goal, already the Government Accountability Office has spotted early warning signs that the bureau’s plan is not heading for an auspicious unveiling. The watchdog report released Monday detailed  miscalculated timelines and costs for the project.

The agency hopes offering an Internet option will help capture responses from those parts of the population that have historically proved least likely to respond to the census, including minorities, renters and children. If implemented successfully, it could make responding more convenient for all segments of the population, and thus result in a better, and perhaps more accurate, pool of data.

But unless the bureau makes some changes, GAO has cast doubts on whether the Census can truly deliver on its goal by the time 2020 rolls around. 

Although the Census has estimated a total project cost of $73 million -- this figure was included in its fiscal 2015 budget request -- the costs could be higher, according to auditors. The bureau failed to update its cost estimate over the last few years, even though best practices associated with the Internet-response tool have likely changed.

The biggest problem with a miscalculated budget is it throws into question one of the motivating factors behind the whole project -- cost-savings. The bureau determined it would save as much as $1 billion by switching to the Internet, according to the GAO report.

But auditors said Census officials have recognized "weaknesses" in their cost estimates. 

However, money is not the bureau’s only blunder. It may also have also miscalculated its timeline.

By September, the bureau will need to make important design decisions for its project. But to make informed decisions, it first needs to determine the Internet self-response rate and the best way to design secure IT systems to support the project.  

Census has, so far, also put off the selection, testing and implementation of a cloud environment that will underpin the Internet option, GAO said. 

“As a result, with systems readiness testing for the complete 2020 census design planned to begin in October 2018, it is uncertain how the bureau can ensure that there is sufficient time to accomplish this objective,” auditors concluded. 

In a response to the GAO report, Deputy Commerce Secretary Bruce Andrews said Census cost estimates were "sufficiently precise" to identify -- and, thus, mitigate -- cost drivers of the project. Andrews also said the bureau had, in fact, developed plans and time frames for making key decisions about the project and suggested auditors may not have understood the bureau's "internal jargon" describing them. 

(Image via Gil C/ Shutterstock.com)