By Terri Ann Lowenthal
I have seven words for Congress as it considers the president’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget request: Remember the Affordable Care Act website launch!
I know. You do not want to be reminded of that painful chapter in President Obama’s signature program. But didn’t someone once say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?” For some reason, I am stuck on historical quips today.
Six years from now, tens of millions of American households will be firing up their desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones to answer the census paper-free. And the 2020 Census website has to work like a charm. Right away. Because unlike the new healthcare law, there can be no deadline extensions, no months-long fixes, no do-overs, in the middle of a census. The more people that answer the census in the final weeks of March and first weeks of April, the more accurate the data — pegged to April 1, 2020 — will be.
If history is any guide, a third of us won’t respond on our own. Then begins the nonresponse follow-up slog, with an army of census takers knocking on doors and coaxing the forgetful, recalcitrant and fearful remainder into answering a handful of simple questions. In another decennial first, these temporary workers will record answers on electronic gadgets, either government-issued or their own.
A recent Time magazine cover story chronicled how a group of “high-tech wizards” came together last October to fix the troubled health care website in six weeks. That’s all well and good. But it can’t happen during a decennial census. How many people will say “the heck with this,” if the 2020 Census website balks when they try to log on and fill out their form? How many will shut the door if a census taker’s tablet goes on the fritz mid-interview? We don’t want to find out the hard way.
People lost confidence, for a good many months, in healthcare.gov and, by extension, the entire Affordable Care Act. They started returning to the website in larger numbers in the early months of 2014. (Nevertheless, as the deadline for enrollment loomed yesterday, “software bugs” took the website down temporarily again!) Confidence lost is hard — and costly — to win back. The Census Bureau will not have the luxury of rebound time.
The administration’s goal for ACA enrollees was 7 million in the first year. The Census Bureau has to count 130 million households — 330 million people — and tabulate the results for congressional reapportionment. In nine months. The Constitution requires it.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself that the Census Bureau has offered an Internet response option for the American Community Survey, an ongoing part of the decennial census, for over a year. More than 50 percent of households in the survey are now responding online — a hopeful sign, to be sure. But the ACS samples fewer than 300,000 addresses a month. A system that can handle 150,000 online forms doesn’t tell us what we need to know about one that will need to manage (if we’re lucky) upwards of 8 million hits a day during peak census operations. Talk about scaling up!
Did I mention telephone assistance? Anticipated call volume from the public and census staff, coupled with outgoing calls to conduct interviews, may overwhelm a centralized call center, the bureau says. It’s time to start hatching a “hybrid” or decentralized plan.
The mid-decade year marks the start of the operational development and systems testing phase for 2020. Contracting offices must be up and running in 2015, with research and development teams ready to define requirements for more than 30 interrelated IT systems needed to run the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Census Bureau had trouble in this department during the last go-round, abandoning plans to use handheld devices in the field at the eleventh hour. Congress had to fork over an extra $2 billion. This time, the bureau has to get it right.
Greater use of technology is just one component of this decade’s major census-process overhaul. Previous budget cuts and sequestration delayed or cancelled field tests and research into innovative, but complex, counting methods and pushed back key design decisions. The clock is ticking, and time will not wait for the Census Bureau to catch up.
So, lawmakers can invest now in the testing and systems development (and more testing!) required to field a modern census on time and within budget. Or they can pinch pennies and say a prayer that the legislature in which they serve is reapportioned fairly and on time. The Census Bureau knows how to count people with paper and pencils; do you have $20 billion to spare? I didn’t think so. Halfway through the decade, $689 million seems like a reasonable stake in a more cost-effective census that works.