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WASHINGTON- Yesterday, Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson requesting information about the Bureau’s preparations for the 2020 Decennial Census. This letter is part of the Committee’s ongoing oversight of the Bureau and the Census.

“Conducting a successful 2020 Decennial Census is the Bureau’s most important function, and it will be underway in less than six years,” wrote the Senators. “While six years may seem to the general public like plenty of time to plan for the census, key milestones that will determine how the 2020 count will take place are rapidly approaching… We are very concerned about the instability of the 2020 Census schedule including delays in research, field tests, and projects. These delays have set back key decision deadlines and ultimately postponing the decision on the final design of the 2020 Census by a full year, until September 2015. Nonetheless, the Census Bureau has shown progress in its planning for the 2020 Census and we are hopeful that the Bureau will conduct a successful census at or below the nearly $13 billion cost of the 2010 Census.”

In the letter, the Senators ask for a status update on preparations for the 2020 Census. As a result of the government shutdown and sequestration, the Bureau was faced with an uncertain budgetary climate, which delayed some parts of the preparation for the Census. In addition to questioning the Bureau’ s timeline, the Senators praised the use of new and innovative technologies and methodologies.

 

A full copy of the letter follows:

 

May 15, 2014

The Honorable John H. Thompson

Director

United States Census Bureau

4600 Silver Hill Road

Washington, DC 20233

 

Dear Director Thompson,

 

Conducting a successful 2020 Decennial Census is the Bureau’s most important function, and it will be underway in less than six years. While six years may seem to the general public like plenty of time to plan for the census, key milestones that will determine how the 2020 count will take place are rapidly approaching. Therefore, we are writing to request information about the extent to which the Census Bureau is on track in its preparations for the 2020 Census, including whether the Bureau will be able to make a final design decision by the September 2015 target date.

 

As you know, each decennial census is an enormous undertaking that requires thorough research and testing as well as investments in information technology and human capital. We are pleased that the Bureau developed a schedule for the 2020 Census early in the decade. However, we are very concerned about the instability of the 2020 Census schedule including delays in research, field tests, and projects. These delays have set back key decision deadlines and ultimately postponing the decision on the final design of the 2020 Census by a full year, until September 2015. We are also concerned that the Bureau has not fully integrated cost estimates into the 2020 Census. Integrating cost and schedule activities allows managers to better track the status of available funds, enabling them to predict whether a project will be under or over budget so that funds can be allocated when needed. If these problems persist, the schedule may be further delayed, adversely impacting the operational development and system testing phase of the 2020 Census and – eventually – the execution of the census itself.

 

We understand that recent budget uncertainty, including sequestration, has impacted the Bureau’s schedule and played a role in the decision to postpone or suspend some research and testing projects. If not managed correctly, these problems can quickly balloon and become costly. We also understand that the Bureau is currently meeting with project teams to determine and prioritize what research and testing needs to be done in order to support the operational design decision. We believe this is a sound project management practice and ask that the Bureau prioritize current and future projects, tests, and other operations in order to mitigate the effects of possible future decreases to the Bureau’s budget. We also urge the Bureau to identify the critical path for making key design decisions for the 2020 Census and take the necessary steps to deliver the final design decision by no later than September 2015.

 

We are encouraged that the Census Bureau will be using new and innovative methods to conduct the 2020 Census that may lead to cost savings. We are especially pleased that the Bureau plans to have an Internet response option, allowing households to respond to the census online, reducing the number of employees and offices needed to process the census forms.

 

We are also hopeful that the Bureau’s plans to move to targeted address canvassing operations and to automate field work will lead to additional savings. While we are optimistic these changes will make census operations more efficient, we also know they involve methods and technologies that the Bureau has not used before and involve a significant investment in IT infrastructure. However, we would note that the automation of certain field activities was planned for the 2010 decennial census, with millions of dollars committed to the effort. That effort ultimately failed due to poor planning and it was among the reasons the last decennial census was conducted by paper. We are encouraged by the involvement of the chief information officer now and hope it will allow problems to be detected and resolved early, preventing wasteful IT spending. Finally, in order to successfully implement these proposed changes in the design of the Census, the Bureau must ensure that it has the appropriate skill sets to manage these projects and programs. If the Bureau has not yet done so, we ask that it create action plans to address the Bureau’s IT skills needs.

 

We are also interested in the Bureau’s plans to use mobile devices for certain 2020 Census activities. Specifically, we are encouraged that the Bureau is exploring a “bring your own device” strategy which will allow software to be installed onto employees’ mobile devices in order to conduct the non-response follow-up and other field operations. Having said that, we have concerns that this plan may not be allowed under current Department of Commerce policy, which states that personal devices cannot be used in any official capacity other than to access business e-mail. It is important to our Committee that the issue be resolved as soon as possible and the Bureau consider whether it will actually  be able to implement “bring your own device” as part of its Commercial Mobile Devices project.

 

Nonetheless, the Census Bureau has shown progress in its planning for the 2020 Census and we are hopeful that the Bureau will conduct a successful census at or below the nearly $13 billion cost of the 2010 Census (adjusted for inflation). In order to continue this progress, we encourage the Bureau to fully implement recommendations from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Commerce Inspector General (IG). We are hopeful that the issues concerning the research and testing schedule can be resolved, that the Bureau will stabilize its schedule and will deliver the final design for the 2020 Census by September 2015. In order to assess the Bureau’s plans and preparations for this, we ask that you respond to the following questions:

 

  • What metrics is the Bureau using to assess progress and determine whether it is on track for the 2020 Census?
  • How, if at all, has the Bureau narrowed its 2020 design options during this research and testing phase?
  • What is the status of the Bureau’s efforts to fully integrate cost estimates into the 2020 schedule?
  • What is the critical path for making key design decisions?
  • What is the current lifecycle cost estimate and how frequently will updates to the estimate be provided? Please provide a detailed breakdown of what these costs entail.
  • What is the role of the CIO in managing the Bureau’s IT investments and what specific steps is the CIO taking to ensure that those investments meet cost, schedule, and performance targets?
  • What is the status and results of the Bureau’s efforts to prioritize the research and testing that needs to be done in order to support the operational design decision by September 2015?
  • The Bureau is spending significant money and resources to invest in IT infrastructure to support the Bureau’s many surveys, including the 2020 Census. Does the Bureau plan to outsource or develop this infrastructure in-house? Please explain whether the Bureau has the appropriate skill sets to either oversee contractors or to build the infrastructure in-house?
  • How does the Bureau intend to resolve the conflict between the Department of Commerce’s policy on personal devices and the Bureau’s bring your own device strategy? and,

 

What decisions will the 2014 Site Test enable the Bureau to make in preparation for the 2015 operational design decision? What outcomes do you expect to realize from the 2014 Site Test?