GAO, Congress warn on Census staffing, cyber

On the eve of the 2020 census, oversight bodies are warning on risks that could compromise the population count.

Census 2020 By Maria Dryfhout Stock photo ID: 790714156

As the 2020 census draws nearer, members of Congress have questioned the Bureau’s ability to recruit adequate numbers of staff, address technology risks, and alleviate fears of undercounting minority populations. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office has only compounded these concerns.

The report stated the Census Bureau is missing milestones on hiring and failing to establish ties with outside stakeholders upon whom it depended to help access hard-to-reach residents who didn't respond to self-reporting strategies. Cybersecurity and data protection risks are also lingering.

"The Bureau is behind on recruiting numbers. Estimates say that it needs to hire between 320,000 and 500,000 enumerators to work on the Census. The size of those numbers is daunting enough, but it needs several times that in applicants in order to meet its hiring needs," GAO's Managing Director of Strategic Issues J. Christopher Mihm testified at a Feb. 12 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. He cited that 202 of the 248 area Census offices across the nation had fallen short of individual recruiting goals as of early February.

"To date, the Bureau has hired some 2.1 million applicants. While noteworthy, it nonetheless does fall short of the goal that it set for itself to reach 2.5 million applicants by [February 2020], and building to the overall goal of 2.6 million," he said.

Census Director Steven Dillingham testified that the Bureau was on target to meet its hiring goals.

"As of this morning we have 2.3 million completed applicants and 2.5 million that have started applications. It's increasing by about 20,000 a day. We will meet the worst-case scenario goal [of 2.7 million applicants] by the first week of March, and then we're going to surpass that. We currently have about four applicants for every position, and we want to have more, as many as five or six," he said.

On Feb. 6, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidelines for federal agencies to allow their workers to become temporary enumerators during the Census counting process.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) noted that in Suffolk County, in her Congressional district, 11,000 enumerators still needed to be hired.

"Why is the Bureau so behind when the Census is weeks away? What is a reasonable time for someone to hear back when they’ve applied," she said.

Dillingham assured her that applicants heard back within about two weeks of applying, though no one was selected for primary operations until March. “We have absolute confidence. No one at the Census Bureau is worried that we won’t meet recruiting goals. ”

The 2020 Census is also set up to be conducted primarily via internet self-responses and by roving enumerators logging data on mobile devices, raising concerns that respondents’ data could be vulnerable to insecurities.

Dillingham said that the Census Bureau had remedied a host of concerns and risks cataloged in an Inspector General report last year.

"We now have redundant storage. In the event of catastrophe in which people can’t reply [to the Census] online, we have millions of additional paper forms and we're ready to mobilize different processes so people can reply," Dillingham said.

Nick Marinos, GAO's director of IT and cybersecurity, said there was some cause for optimism on the cybersecurity front.

"The Bureau has been working with Homeland Security cybersecurity experts for over two years now. [The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] has been conducting assessments and providing consultation and advice and has an agreement with the Bureau to provide operational support in the event that the Bureau starts to see some nefarious activity."