The WaterFire installation in downtown Providence, one of three U.S. locations participating in next year’s full dress rehearsal for the 2020 census.

Liz West/Flickr

Challenges mount for a successful 2020 U.S. census

Financial and political storm clouds are gathering over the 2020 census, the nation’s biggest civilian undertaking.

Yesterday, Census Bureau Director John Thompson told a congressional spending panel about a significant overrun in the cost of a new, billion-dollar tracking system for the next census. It has triggered fears by the panel’s chairman, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), that the agency might blow past a congressional mandate to spend no more in 2020 than the $12.5 billion cost of the 2010 enumeration of every U.S. resident.

Census officials have said repeatedly they can meet the $12.5 billion cap by modernizing their procedures. They have asserted that such novel steps as encouraging residents to fill out the 10-question survey on the internet or via a call center, having field workers use smartphones to record answers from those who have ignored previous pleas to respond, updating master address lists through aerial imagery, and using existing government records for persistent nonrespondents will save an estimated $5 billion over the cost of continuing with the old approach.

But at the hearing, Thompson had to apologize to legislators for one bump in that road. Thompson said that the CEDCaP (Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing) program is now $309 million over its original cost estimate of $656 million, blaming the jump on the agency’s lack of in-house technical and accounting expertise. And even that estimate may be flawed. Officials from a congressional watchdog group who also testified pegged the overrun at $400 million and warned that costs might continue to rise.

The hearing marked a rare appearance by the census director before the spending panel, and underlined Culberson’s concerns about the agency’s management practices. But CEDCaP isn’t even Thompson’s biggest worry.

The bureau’s annual budget—$1.37 billion in 2016—needs to ramp up significantly in 2017 and 2018 to allow officials to develop and test all the new electronic wrinkles that Thompson says will allow the agency to meet the congressional mandate to cap costs. But that budget growth—starting with a request for $263 million more in 2017—isn’t happening. Last fall Congress failed to pass a budget for the 2017 fiscal year that began on 1 October and instead imposed a 7-month freeze on new spending. In January, Thompson decided to save money up front by delaying work on verifying addresses, canceling advertising for the 700,000 households that will participate next year in a full dress rehearsal of the 2020 census, and holding off on opening six regional centers.

But those steps—and other tweaks made to protect what Thompson has called “higher-priority” activities—could come back to bite the agency. Moving address verification into the field rather than using in-office methods will require hiring more people at additional costs, for example, and the lack of advertising for what’s called the end-to-end test will mean using untested marketing and communications strategies in the lead up to Census Day on 1 April 2020.

This week Congress adopted a final 2017 spending plan that gives Census a $100 million boost—$163 million less than the request. Thompson says he “welcomes” the increase, and yesterday he told the panel that he was “ecstatic” that the 2018 budget proposed by President Donald Trump flagged the 2020 census “as a priority.”

But the director’s enthusiasm should be taken with a grain of salt. The 2018 budget blueprint that Trump released in March would basically maintain the agency’s current funding—$1.5 billion versus $1.47 billion in the final 2017 spending bill. “Given the need to do everything you’ve described, shouldn’t 2018 be much higher?” asked Representative José Serrano (D–NY), the top Democrat on the panel.

“I’m not going to get ahead of the president,” Thompson replied, referring to the expected rollout later this month of Trump’s full 2018 budget proposal to Congress. “But I’d be delighted to come back before the committee” after that to lay out the bureau’s plans, Thompson added.

Thompson’s tactful answer highlights the fact that the bureau’s budget crisis is fundamentally a clash of political ideologies. Republicans already wary of big government wonder why the decennial census—a requirement under the U.S. Constitution to determine the allocation of congressional seats—costs so much at a time when they are trying to reduce domestic spending. In contrast, Democrats worry that cutting corners on what is needed to conduct an “accurate and fair” census will result in the undercounting of groups—in particular minorities and immigrants—that also traditionally vote Democratic.

“We want an accurate census, but one that is done frugally,” Culberson told Thompson as he opened the hearing of the commerce, justice, and science appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives that he chairs. He said that the newly disclosed overrun on the CEDCaP program sounds disturbingly familiar.

“This seems to happen every time,” Culberson scolded Thompson. “That’s one of our biggest frustrations—an inability to hold people accountable for misspending precious tax dollars. … It’s simply unacceptable.”

Democrats on the panel agreed with the chairman’s call for greater accountability, chastising Thompson for not immediately notifying the committee about the recent cost overrun. But one member, Representative Matt Cartwright (D–PA), worried that Culberson’s definition of frugality might be forcing agency officials to take steps that turn out to be “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Cost questions

At yesterday’s hearing, Thompson repeated the agency’s vow to meet the $12.5 billion cost goal for the 2020 census and chalk up $5 billion in savings. But he also implied for the first time that the latter figure may not hold up. “I’m confident in achieving significant savings in 2020,” Thompson said when Culberson pressed him on whether he still expected to save $5 billion. “That is our current estimate, but it might change over the summer.”

That’s when the agency plans to announce a new overall cost estimate for the 2020 census, replacing the current one issued in October 2015. Thompson declined to offer a sneak preview, but the two witnesses from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency in Washington, D.C., were less reticent.

 “That [cost savings] is starting to erode,” said Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s director of strategic issues. “We are already starting to see increases.”

Goldenkoff had testified earlier in the hearing that the agency faces a huge challenge. “A complete and accurate census is becoming an increasingly daunting task because the nation’s population is growing larger, more diverse, and more reluctant to participate,” he told the panel. He reminded legislators that the census’s biggest expense by far is following up on those who don’t fill out and submit the survey after receiving their first government mailing. And he explained why cutting corners isn’t an effective long-term strategy. “Those offsets could lead to cost increases over time if they result in higher nonresponse rates,” Goldenkoff said.

His colleague, David Powner, GAO’s director of information technology (IT), pointed to two additional factors casting doubt on the current estimates. One is the lack of a firm baseline from which to calculate savings. The other is the challenge of estimating the cost of the novel technology to be deployed.

“We don’t know what the IT costs will be,” Powner said. “My guess is that they will be more than $1 billion higher than the $2.4 billion the bureau has estimated,” he added, noting that a recently awarded $886 million contract for IT integration isn’t included in the 2015 estimate.

The new cost estimate will be useful, GAO’s Goldenkoff said, but it won’t end the uncertainty. “If the Census Bureau gives us a better estimate this summer, will you be comfortable with it?” Serrano asked Goldenkoff.

“Yes, if it’s delivered on time,” Goldenkoff replied, noting that the agency has already missed one self-imposed deadline for updating its cost estimate. “Their deeds will speak louder than words.”