2020 Census Remains High-Risk Issue for GAO

Census 2020 image-min

The 2020 U.S. Census is on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) list of high-risk programs, particularly out of concern for the U.S. Census Bureau’s ability to implement modified information technology (IT) systems to efficiently collect and secure data in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Although GAO noted that the requirements for the Bureau’s leadership were sufficient, staffing capacity is still a concern. GAO’s high-risk program report highlighted that the Bureau faces a skills gap in its office that oversees the $886-million contract for integrating the IT systems needed to conduct the 2020 census.

“Specifically, as of November 2018, 21 of 44 positions in this office were vacant,” GAO wrote. “These vacant positions add risk that the office may not be able to provide adequate oversight of contractor cost, schedule, and performance.”

The Bureau’s action plan also faces some shortfalls. Not only does it lack a risk assessment that determines the Census’ reliability, but GAO found the Bureau’s data management reporting system didn’t consistently provide accurate information because of software issues. Consequently, staff had to rely on multiple systems to manage the Bureau’s field operations, making monitoring inefficient.

GAO also highlighted that the Bureau has not properly met requirements to efficiently monitor the cost, timeliness, and security of the Census. Delays in system, integration, and security testing introduced cybersecurity challenges. In December 2018, for example, the Bureau had found 1,1000 security weaknesses that needed to be addressed.

Furthermore, the Bureau scaled back its field testing in 2017 and 2018, and it didn’t test all of its 2020 Census and IT systems during its operational test.

“Not fully testing innovations and IT systems as designed increases the risk that innovations and IT systems will not function as intended during the 2020 Census,” GAO wrote.

Although the Bureau has addressed 67 of the 97 recommendations GAO presented since January, 30 remain untouched. GAO, therefore, stressed the Bureau must focus on several areas—particularly in IT management and cybersecurity planning—to prepare itself to conduct the upcoming Census.

“To make continued progress, the Bureau needs to ensure its approach to strategic planning, IT management, cybersecurity, human capital management, internal collaboration, knowledge sharing, as well as risk and change management are aligned toward delivering more cost-effective outcomes,” GAO wrote.

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