Lawmakers want online census for 2010

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) promised to force the Census Bureau to at least test using the Internet for the decennial count.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) can’t understand why the U.S. Census Bureau has decided not to use the Internet for at least some part of the 2010 census.

In fact, he is so disturbed by what he calls bureau managers’ lack of 21st-century vision that the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee said he will try to attach a provision to the Commerce, Justice and State appropriations bill for fiscal 2008 requiring the bureau to use a portion of its 2010 census funding for at least an Internet test.

“They could do a pilot so by the 2020 census they are online,” Coburn said after a hearing where he lambasted the bureau's director, Louis Kincannon, about this issue. “I can’t think of a reason not to do the census on the Internet. I don’t think anyone else would disagree with me.”

During the hearing, Coburn pointed to the Internal Revenue Service’s success with accepting tax returns online as an example for Census. He also said if other private-sector financial institutions can operate securely online, there is no reason the census cannot.

“I’m appalled that you are not at least trying to do this on the Internet,” he said. “We don’t have a vision to get this done. I will do everything I can to force the Internet down your throat with amendments. You are living in the past, not the future. I recommend you get on board for 2010.”

Kincannon told lawmakers that during their tests in 2003 and 2005, the response rates did not increase and the bureau didn’t save on processing costs. He also said he was concerned over cybersecurity issues.

“I’m not comfortable with the security and control of risk because of phishing and other things that can occur,” he said. “If one rumor starts that there was identity theft, we would be in trouble.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the subcommittee's chairman, responded with disapproval, too.

“Now is the time to do the census online,” he said.

Coburn was even more direct. “To tell me you want to wait on technology to catch up, I don’t buy it,” he said. “It is impossibly inefficient not to do the census on the Internet. I’m offering you a challenge today. It is unconscionable not to do at least a portion on the Internet. It is not a technology or security issue, it is a lack of vision.”

After the hearing, Kincannon said the 2003 test offered paper and Internet options, while the 2005 test offered only an Internet option.

“Overall, our response rate in the 2005 test was 5.7 percentage points lower than with paper,” he said.

Coburn and Carper were not alone in their push for using the Internet. David Powner and Mathew Scire, Government Accountability Office officials, agreed that doing a portion of the census on the Internet should be an option.

Scire, GAO’s director of strategic issues, told lawmakers that Census’ tests and results may not have been as accurate as they could have been because the bureau did not promote the Internet as an option.

Powner, GAO’s director of information technology issues, added that the technology is there, but the question is whether Census has enough time to set up and test the Internet option.