Dec 14 2015

Census Bureau Faces Looming Deadlines for Key IT Decisions Ahead of 2020

The Census Bureau needs to start making choices about its IT systems before the next count, according to a GAO report.

The 2010 census carried out by the U.S. Census Bureau was the costliest in history, according to the Government Accountability Office, with the price tag coming in at around $13 billion — 56 percent more expensive than the 2000 count.

In an attempt to be more efficient with the next census, the Census Bureau is taking steps to streamline its IT systems and how it collects data, but the window is closing for it to make crucial decisions on those fronts ahead of the 2020 census, according to a report from the GAO.

The report, released last month, found that with less than two years remaining before preparations begin for end-to-end testing of all its IT systems, the bureau has limited time to implement all of the proposed changes. In October, the Census Bureau released its 2020 Census Operational Plan, but the GAO report said that there are still many unanswered questions.

Time Is Running Out

The Census Bureau is taking several steps to modernize its methods in an effort to save as much as $5.2 billion for the 2020 census, the report notes. Those include re-engineering processes for updating the bureau’s address list and maps so that field staff do not need to walk every street in the nation to verify addresses.

The bureau is also looking to offer citizens the ability to respond to the census through an online portal, though the GAO report notes that the bureau “would need to, among other things, design and develop an Internet response application, develop and acquire the IT infrastructure to support a large volume of data processing and storage, and plan communication and outreach strategies to motivate households to respond via the Internet.”

Additionally, the bureau plans to expand the use of data previously obtained by other federal and state government agencies and commercial sources “to reduce the need for costly and labor-intensive follow-up work.” The bureau also intends to cut down the number of visits to households, automate the management of enumerator work to conduct follow-up visits to those who do not respond to the census survey, and automate and optimize case assignment and routing for census workers.

Carol Cha, GAO's director of IT acquisition management issues, testified Nov. 3 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s subcommittees on government operations and information technology. She said that while the bureau is making progress, it faces challenges ahead of its plans to begin preparations for testing its systems by August 2017.

“These include the magnitude of the planned changes to the design of the census, the bureau’s prior track record in executing large-scale IT projects, and the current lack of a permanent chief information officer, among others,” she said. “Moreover, the bureau’s preliminary decision deadline has come and gone, and many IT-related decisions have been deferred to 2016 through 2018. Consequently, it is running out of time to develop, acquire, and implement the production systems it will need to deliver the redesign and achieve its projected $5.2 billion in cost savings.”

The bureau is pushing off key IT decisions, the report said. For example, the bureau hasn’t decided on the projected demand that the IT infrastructure and systems would need to accommodate. And the bureau won’t decide whether it will build or buy the needed systems until June 2016, at the earliest. Further, the report said, the bureau won’t settle on the high-level design and description of the systems (referred to as the solutions architecture) until September 2016.

That would leave the bureau with only about a year to, among other things, build or acquire, integrate and test the systems that are intended to serve as the backbone to the 2020 census before preparations start for end-to-end testing.

Key Choices Loom on the Mobile Strategy

During the 2010 census, the Census Bureau planned to use handheld mobile devices to support field data collection for the census, including following up with nonrespondents. However, a 2013 GAO report found that “due to significant problems identified during testing of the devices, cost overruns, and schedule slippages, the bureau decided not to use the handheld devices for non-response follow-up and reverted to paper-based processing, which increased the cost of the 2010 Census by up to $3 billion and significantly added to its risk as it had to switch its operations to paper-based operations as its backup.”

To avoid that kind of a setback for the 2020 census, Department of Commerce CIO Steven Cooper testified at the same hearing in November that the bureau is exploring numerous enterprise mobility solutions, including Device as a Service and bring-your-own-device applications on iOS and Android tablets and smartphones, according to FierceGovernmentIT.

The agency plans to award a Device as a Service contract, which would include hardware, wireless service and accessories, Cooper said, according to NextGov. Additionally, the bureau has also started developing apps to collect field data designed to run on a variety of devices and operating systems in BYOD environments.

The Bureau has tested its new mobile systems, but as Politico notes, so far they’re just prototypes, and the bureau will need to scale the solutions up to survey more than 100 million American households.

“That’s a dangerous assumption to make, that these prototype systems will be in place [for 2020],” Cha said at the hearing. “But I think the key lesson learned from 2010 … is that the bureau underestimated the technical complexity associated with the handhelds. So even though they are not developing new devices, that lesson is still important.”

The GAO report found that the bureau won’t decide on its strategy for the use of mobile devices for fieldwork until October 2017, two months after end-to-end testing preparations are scheduled to start.


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