Somebody Call A Tow Truck!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last blog post, I lamented a looming “collision” as U.S. House appropriators kept driving the wrong way – downhill and backwards – on the up ramp to the 2020 census, slashing the Census Bureau’s FY2014 budget request by $120+ million, which would leave the agency with $44.5 million less than its inadequate FY2013 budget. Without early investment in census research, testing and development, Congress could be spending a fortune to pull the 2020 headcount out of a ditch in a few short years.

Fortunately, the Senate has dispatched the highway patrol!

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill (S. 1329), allocating the full amount the Obama Administration requested for the Census Bureau: $982.5 million. Sure, the committee once again dipped into the agency’s Working Capital Fund to get to that level, but the $10 million grab is small compared to previous raids on the WCF, and I will not look a gift horse in the mouth today. (See my Feb. 27, 2012, post for a quick tutorial on the WCF.)

I think Senate lawmakers are starting to grasp the long-range picture. The committee’s explanatory report (Senate Rpt. 113-78) says the budget request “suggests that the Census Bureau intends to reduce the 2020 Census costs to 2010 Census levels by finding ways to reduce door-to-door operations, using the Internet to solicit responses, and using scalable technology, such as elastic agency-wide IT systems that can expand for the 2020 Census and then return to normal operations tempo.” The committee wistfully mentions the possibility of spending less than the 2000 census, without adjusting for inflation, but we can forgive this momentary lapse in sanity, although it clearly yearns for yesteryear with later references to spending “less than the 2010 census” in 2020. Nevertheless, Senators seem to understand that the bureau can’t get from point A to point B, and accomplish the significant reforms Congress is seeking, without an investment in the groundwork that needs to be done.

House appropriators, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it, too. Their $153.5 million allocation for 2020 Census planning — $91 million below the president’s request — “underscores the Committee’s views that research and testing efforts are vital to ensuring that the 2020 Census is the most accurate and cost effective decennial yet.” We just don’t want to pay for those efforts. The committee asked for a schedule of all work “critical to the success of the 2020 Decennial Census,” including the cost of each activity “to better account for the cost effects of possible schedule slippage.” And then we’ll take you to task for falling behind schedule, even though we haven’t given you enough money to stay on track. The funding chiefs also want the agency to create shared and reusable IT services (“as a way to economize”!), continue developing a mobile computing infrastructure, implement a comprehensive information security program in accordance with in-depth GAO recommendations, and consult with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure compliance with security standards. And please figure out how to do all of this vital work even though we cut your requested budget by nearly 40 percent. If the House has its way, Congress is going to need a super-size tow truck! (The House Commerce funding bill allocates $225 million for the American Community Survey — the most cost effective test-bed available for the 2020 census — $17 million less than the administration’s request.)

Will lawmakers beat the fiscal year clock to enact a final Commerce spending bill by midnight on September 30? Let’s consider: the House will be in session 17 more days until the FY2013 coach turns into a pumpkin; the Senate will be in session 26 days. Ummm… I think I see a temporary spending resolution in my crystal ball, which could leave the Census Bureau spinning its wheels in a ditch for a while longer (at the paltry current year funding levels), while the House and Senate try to come to grips collectively with the concept of ramping up for the nation’s largest peacetime undertaking.

Note: The House FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill and report numbers are not available as of this writing, but both documents are available on the House Appropriations Committee website.

Slip Sliding Away: The Risk Factor Goes Up As 2020 Census Funding Goes Down

Editor’s note: This blog post was revised on July 11 to reflect more detailed information released by the Appropriations Committee.

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

I’m starting this blog post with one of my famous census headaches.

That’s because House appropriators are driving the wrong way — downhill and backwards — on the up ramp to Census 2020. I see a collision in the not too distant future: Congress doesn’t want to pay a lot for the next census, but it won’t put gas in the tank to keep the Census Bureau from stalling on the road to achieving that goal.

The Census Bureau is trying to wrap up its research and testing phase for 2020. Fundamental reforms in methodology and technology are on the table as the agency strives to curtail the big-ticket enumeration items, especially universal canvassing to confirm the address list and reliance on paper forms for every household in the nation. The bureau had hoped to select a design framework in 2014 so it could move forward with operational and systems development; now that’s not going to happen until 2015.

This year (FY2013), lawmakers cut the bureau’s budget request by 11 percent (more if you count another sneaky transfer of money from the Working Capital Fund). And now the House Appropriations Committee is taking another whack at the budget for Fiscal Year 2014; the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee allocated just $845 million in its “committee mark” today, $44 million less than current year funding. The president requested $982 million, only a hair over his request for FY2013. That’s a cut of $137 million, or 14 percent, in discretionary spending.

Talk about rolling backwards down the hill… can I have another Excedrin, please?

Call me crazy (maybe it’s just the pulsing in my temples), but it almost looks like Congress has decided we really don’t need to plan for the next constitutionally prescribed decennial census — coming to a neighborhood near you in less than seven years. The Census Bureau can just envision ways to cut the cost of counting, cross its fingers, and hope for the best.

Field tests scheduled for 2013? A 28 percent funding cut forced the Census Bureau to cancel some and delay others, including key tests of strategies to encourage and facilitate electronic response in ways that preserve public confidence and ensure data security. An Internet response option could save big bucks during the census, but the methodology is far from simple. Do you send a letter to each household first, with a unique code for answering online, or could people somehow “pre-register” to receive a code for online participation? Should you mail a questionnaire if a household doesn’t answer online by a certain date, or just send an enumerator to the door? Would Americans welcome or reject text messages and emails from the Census Bureau, urging them to be counted, and how can everyone avoid the inevitable phishing schemes from false census.gov addresses (I’ve received two myself already)? I can’t answer these questions, and neither can the Census Bureau without thorough evaluation.

Possible changes to census questions? The American Community Survey is a cost-effective test-bed for proposed revisions, but the 2013 funding shortfall will push back a key content test from 2015 to 2016, which — in my opinion — is getting too close for comfort to the statutory April 1, 2017, deadline for submitting census topics to Congress.

The Census Bureau has made the hard choices for 2013: moving some research from the field to a desk; pushing back deadlines; reevaluating projects planned for next year. It is moving forward, for now, with research into a potentially big money-saver: using administrative records to identify possible undercounts and add people who might be missed during the census. But with the National Security Agency data mining program looming large in the American consciousness, that research must be thorough and robust before the Census Bureau can even hope for buy-in from lawmakers and the public. Important research into public trust and confidentiality concerns has been pushed back already. Without a funding increase in 2014, the agency won’t even be able to cover its staffing costs.

The risk of an unacceptably costly or unacceptably inaccurate census, or both, continues to go up as Congress continues to squeeze the Census Bureau’s budget during the critical research, testing and development phases of our decennial enumeration. The census is a 10-year program. Congress can invest in planning now, to keep the life-cycle cost of the enumeration in check ($13 – $18 billion, depending on the design, according to independent auditors), or keep letting the car roll backward — and dig itself out of a census ditch for $30 billion in a few short years.

New Year’s Worries

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Now that the holidays have come and gone, I have a lot on my mind in the new year. The next census will start in eight years; the dress rehearsal is only six years away; local governments will start reviewing address lists in five years, when the Census Bureau, by law, must submit 2020 Census topics to Congress … oh my, where has the time gone?

And the fun really never stops. In a few weeks, the president will send his Fiscal Year 2013 budget to Congress; legislators will declare the proposal dead-on-arrival, retreat to their partisan corners of the ring for nine months, and fail to pass their own version of a spending plan before the fiscal year actually starts on October 1.

Oh sure, they’ll take a stab at passing funding bills. For the last two fiscal years, and at the eleventh hour, Congress dipped into the Census Bureau’s once-obscure Working Capital Fund (WCF) to meet reduced budget targets for the appropriations account covering commerce, justice and science programs, which includes the Census Bureau. In the uncertain world that is Congress, two years a trend does make. This has me very worried.

Historically, the Census Bureau has been a sitting duck for appropriators in the early years of a decade. With decennial census fatigue setting in when a year ending in “1” rolls around, lawmakers seem to catch a collective case of indifference, helping themselves to significant chunks of the agency’s budget in order to meet tight federal spending limits and pay for other favored programs.

Once Congress discovers a large pot of money not on the radar of letter-writing, phone-calling constituents, it is likely to go to that well as many times as it can plausibly defend. Generally, that means until The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post editors point out how ludicrous the budget cut is. That’s what happened with the inconspicuous Economic Census, which might have been cancelled after House appropriators slashed the Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request by a quarter. (A 11/16/11 Huffington Post headline trumpeted, “Census Budget Cuts Eliminate Data on Job Creators.” A bit of an embarrassment for lawmakers in a recession marked by high unemployment.) Then Congress finds another way to reduce spending that turns out to be so difficult to explain, the funding bill is law before anyone has a chance to wrap their head around the consequences.

And regrettably, those consequences are not entirely clear at first blush. Census stakeholders from businesses, to advocates for the poor, to local governments can easily explain how a loss of reliable data hampers their ability to understand the communities they serve and allocate their fiscal and human resources prudently. (The real challenge is getting anyone in Congress to listen.) But the bureau’s Working Capital Fund, which (as GAO explains in a recent report, GAO-12-56) is a form of that exciting financing mechanism, an intergovernmental revolving fund? Not so much.

Cutting the WCF gives Congress some cover; it can say it didn’t take funds from important data collection programs, such as the American Community Survey (ACS), or research activities, such as testing an Internet response option for the 2020 count. But is that really the case? You can only cut shared overhead costs and capital investments so much before the foundation gets shaky and the building starts to crumble. Updated computers and enhanced security systems (for an agency with data privacy at its core)? They might sound like luxuries in today’s fiscal climate, but a business can only go so long without investing in operating improvements. Rent to GSA? The bureau’s National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, Indiana? Can’t do without a roof over your head and someone to tabulate all of that information you collect. So how to make up for the WCF losses of $55 million in FY11 and $50 million in FY12? Census Bureau program managers will have to tighten their belts once again, shedding activities that arguably fall lower on the priority list. Do you miss the beloved Statistical Abstract yet? Well, hang on to your statistical seats; more surveys, research and data products inevitably could fall by the wayside if the trend of cutting funds for essential shared services continues.

One more thing that’s bothering me about this new chapter in census budget-raiding history: Lawmakers who have a bone to pick with the Census Bureau could prune the Working Capital Fund to make a political point, without so obviously putting a specific program beloved by stakeholders at risk. Maybe a senator is unhappy with a staff appointment, or the population number for their state, or their inability to access a data set to which they aren’t entitled? I’m just saying.

Raiding The Census Piggy Bank

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

With the smell of turkey and sweet potato pie in the air, Congress finally approved funding for the U.S. Census Bureau for the fiscal year that started seven weeks earlier. The so-called “mini-bus” appropriations bill — encompassing three of 12 federal appropriations accounts — allocates $943 million for the nation’s largest number-crunching agency (H. Rpt. 112-284).

Well, sort of. The bureau actually will receive $888 million in direct appropriations. Congress decided to dip into the little-known Working Capital Fund (WCF) for the remaining $55 million the Census Bureau needs to pull off the 2012 Economic Census, albeit a scaled-down version. More on that in a moment.

Not familiar with the WCF? For starters, it’s not really a fund. Rather, it’s a revolving account that is used to manage many of the Census Bureau’s core functions. Half of the account represents money from other federal agencies for reimbursable work, such as surveys. In other words, it’s not the Census Bureau’s money. The other half pays for what can loosely be termed “overhead” — that is, basic but essential operations that support all programs. Things like IT systems; the budget, human resources and communications offices; and salaries for the director and other managerial staff.

Appropriators decided that the Census Bureau could spare $55 million from this pot of money, so they wouldn’t have to find more discretionary funding to pay for essential census and survey activities. Last year, Congress permanently torpedoed $50 million of the WCF and pretended it had reduced federal spending by that much. Does anyone else detect a pattern here?

I worked in Congress for 14 years. It is with utmost respect for those who toil in legislative obscurity that I say, “People, the Working Capital Fund is not an appropriator’s piggy bank.” Yes, I am aware of the new Government Accountability Office report (GAO-12-56) suggesting that the Census Bureau allow more sun to shine on the WCF and establish operational performance measures to promote efficiencies. The congressional auditors also noted that dramatic fluctuations in spending on the decennial census require the bureau to save money in the WCF for a rainy day through an operating reserve. Which is now $50 million smaller.

But really, what part of its overhead should the Census Bureau sacrifice to come up with this large sum? The communications office annual budget is less than half that amount. Shut down its congressional liaison activities? Ditch the press releases that inform the media and stakeholders about data products? Congress doesn’t seem to grasp the connection between Census Bureau data and the myriad policy decisions the public and private sectors make on a daily basis, so why bother? Cut back on protecting confidential information from 40,000 daily cyber attacks? Better yet, why not shut down the website entirely, thereby negating the expense of maintaining an Internet presence and defending against hackers — a sort of two-for-one reduction?

Frankly, given the country’s dire economic straits, I think we need to be really creative. Why don’t we furlough the entire senior Census Bureau staff (including the director), and then bring them all back in five years so Congress can blame the agency for not trying hard enough to design a simplified, less costly 2020 Census. Speaking of which…

Have I mentioned that Senate appropriators smartly challenged the Census Bureau to take the 2020 census for the same amount of money it spent on Census 2000, without adjusting for inflation? I’m all for saving money. The Census Bureau must bring the per-household cost of the decennial enumeration under control. In fact, the census director took the unusual step of announcing the closure of half of the bureau’s 12 regional offices, without a nudge from Congress, in a preemptive move to bring costs down.

But to go from spending $13 billion (in current dollars) to take the 2010 census, to counting 10 percent more people for a third of that amount eight years from now? I’m not feeling it yet.

But I digress. Things could be worse for the Census Bureau. It could be languishing under a temporary spending measure (the insufferable Continuing Resolution) with the many agencies that couldn’t get on board a little bus to 2012 funding certainty. House appropriators proposed cutting 21 percent from the bureau’s budget request, potentially dooming the quinquennial detailed measurement of the nation’s economic activity. Cooler congressional heads prevailed in the final hour, offering enough money to proceed with core Economic Census functions. But the Survey of Business Owners is on the chopping block — the only source of data on business ownership by people of color, women and (yes!) veterans.

As for the rest of the bureau’s programs, I suspect managers spent the holiday weekend scouring their budgets for additional expendable activities. The agency can’t cut $55 million from overhead and function effectively, so programs such as 2010 census evaluations and data products, 2020 census planning, the American Community Survey, and other periodic functions must absorb some of the pain.

The real problem is that, in order to yield savings anywhere near the magnitude of those money-green sugarplums dancing in lawmakers’ heads, the Census Bureau must invest modest but consistent resources now to research and test forward-looking methods that will expand response options for increasingly complex household structures. Cutting the agency’s budget to the bare bones won’t generate the level of scientific foresight necessary to tackle the depth of challenges inevitable in a society as culturally, ethnically and politically diverse as ours.

Memo to Census Director Robert Groves: Hold on tight to that piggy bank next year!