Lax Census Background Checks Could OK ‘Unfit’ Employees for 2020

Gil C/

Part of the problem is the type of contract the agency used to vet the temporary workers who handle the data, the inspector general found.

The Census Bureau’s lax oversight of employee background checks is making the process of vetting hundreds of thousands of temporary workers for the 2020 count more expensive and potentially less effective, investigators found.

The Commerce Department inspector general found the Census Investigative Services office isn’t following its own rules for making sure background checks are successful, and the contracts used to hire many of the people doing the vetting don’t incentivize them to work efficiently. Investigators also determined the agency does not sufficiently monitor its contractors, and officials often pay employees using the wrong agency funds.

“Quality assurance weaknesses jeopardize the effectiveness of [background check] procedures … the manner in which CIS’s current time-and-materials contract is being administered and inadequate planning, pose risks to the success of 2020 Census background check activities,” investigators wrote in a report dated Feb. 27.

“Applicants who may be unqualified or unfit may nevertheless pass a background check and then be sent to the homes of U.S. residents to collect personal information for the bureau,” the report states.

The Census Bureau vets each of the temporary employees it brings on to assist with the decennial count in an effort to protect public safety and ensure sensitive household data is properly handled, the IG said. For the 2010 census, the bureau ran roughly 3.8 million background checks and hired more than 850,000 temporary employees.

Since 2010, CIS used time-and-materials contracts to hire on 22 people to support the employee vetting efforts, at a collective cost of $16.7 million. Because the value of these agreements is based on the number of hours someone works, a contractor has no incentive to work efficiently or control costs.

The government considers such agreements high-risk, and when agencies award them, Federal Acquisition Regulation requires them to explain in writing why it’s necessary. However, the Census Bureau didn’t adequately justify their need for the costly deals, investigators found.

Additionally, they said the agency isn’t properly managing its contracts or overseeing its contractors’ performance. The IG also found CIS supervisors “never used the [quality control] checklist” used to ensure employees followed the correct vetting procedures.

Investigators uncovered more than 500 instances of supervisors reviewing and approving their own recommendations, violating requirements set by the Government Accountability Office. Furthermore, the IG found officials misallocated more than $1.1 million between January 2016 and April 2017, paying Census employees out of non-Census funds and non-Census employees out of Census funds.

The background check blunders come as the most recent misstep in the bureau’s preparation for the 2020 count.

The GAO designated the 2020 decennial as a “high-risk” project last year amid a slew of budgetary and cybersecurity concerns. As of August 2017, the bureau had only developed and tested four of the 43 IT systems needed for its 2018 end-to-end test.

The Commerce IG made six recommendations to the bureau involving reassessing contracts, delegating responsibilities in the background check process and training officials to properly oversee contractors and allocate funds. The agency agreed with all recommendations.