by Terri Ann Lowenthal
So where were we, census fans?
As we rub the sleep out of our post-government shutdown eyes, and revel in data on the re-opened Census Bureau website, we are faced with the prospect that the uphill climb to Census 2020 just got a little steeper. Okay, maybe a whole lot steeper.
Let’s consider the good news first. The federal government is open for business. Surveys are in the field again. Economic indicators are, well, lagging, but the Census Bureau will publish them in due time. Small-city, county, town and neighborhood data from the American Community Survey will be late, but we’ll have them before year’s end.
Now the gloomy news. The federal government is running on last year’s gas tank. That ramp-up in funding to complete decennial census research and testing? Fuhgeddaboudit. With sequestration and across-the-board cuts, the Census Bureau’s budget was already 11 percent below the request for FY2013. That fiscal year has come and gone, but the ghost of budgets past will linger for at least a few more months in the form of a Continuing Resolution that expires on January 15. Not only is there no modest, yet vital, funding boost into the second quarter of FY2014, there is no way to dig out of the 2013 hole yet. Budget uncertainty plus inadequate funding equals increased risk of cut-corners and missed savings opportunities.
What’s at risk? The bureau has already pushed back a critical milestone — to select the 2020 Census design framework — by a year, to the end of FY2015. The National Content Test will be a year late, too, in 2016. That doesn’t leave much time to scrub the results before the legally-required content submission to Congress by April 1, 2017.
Now comes word that the Census Bureau is suspending work on several 2020 research and testing projects. It has “temporarily” reassigned 86 employees to other divisions because the money just isn’t there, and won’t fill a similar number of vacancies for 2020 Census planning unless it gets a sufficient funding boost for FY2014. People, this is not a promising sign of robust progress towards fundamental census reform. Congress can twiddle its thumbs while the fiscal clock ticks away, but the Census Bureau cannot defer the day of reckoning — April 1, 2020.
The Census Director says the agency will be able to complete the most critical 2020 Census activities planned for the current fiscal year. So why am I still tossing and turning at night? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified IT management as a “long-standing” decennial census shortcoming. But thanks to sequestration and other budget cuts, acquisitions and systems development for 2020 will start a year later than planned. Let’s hope the bureau doesn’t have to cut corners when it comes to integrating and perfecting IT and field infrastructure.
Then there are promising strategies for maximizing electronic self-response on the front end and increasing follow-up efficiency on the back end. But is cyber-response the antidote to Congress’s census sticker-shock nightmare? Consider phishing scams, NSA-fueled privacy jitters, and finicky rural Wi-Fi connections before you answer. Can you imagine inviting scores of millions of households to participate online and not fully load-testing the system? Can you say healthcare.gov?
Maybe lawmakers should repeat Cyclical Program Ramp-up 101, before the 2020 Census is back to paper, postage and pencils — for twice the price.