GAO Continues to Warn Census Bureau Risk Areas Must Be Addressed

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has expressed concerns regarding the 2020 Decennial Census for several years. A new report calls for immediate action by the Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau to avert risks to cost, quality, scheduling, and the security of the enumeration.

The GAO originally placed the 2020 Decennial Census on the GAO High Risk List in 2017 due to widespread vacancies in Census Bureau, a lack of best practices for scheduling the thousands of activities that make up the 2020 Census, cybersecurity risks, implementation issues during testing, and a range of other concerns.

In 2019, the 2020 Decennial Census remained on the High Risk List but was praised for improvements in several key areas, such as leadership commitment. Issues relating to vacancies, cybersecurity weaknesses and IT oversight, and scheduling remained a top concern for the watchdog group.

The GAO report explained, “For the 2020 Census, the U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) plans to implement several innovations, including new IT systems. The challenges associated with successfully implementing these innovations, along with other challenges, puts the Bureau’s ability to conduct a cost-effective census at risk.”

The GAO released a subsequent report in May 2019 finding 360 active risk areas to the Decennial Census. Of these, 242 required a mitigation plan to reduce the chance of risk and 232 had one; 146 required a contingency plan to recover from possible risk and 102 had one. GAO recommended creating clear plans for timing and risk management, among other suggestions. The agency agreed with these recommendations.

In response to concerns from members of Congress regarding the Census Bureau’s preparedness for the 2020 enumeration, the GAO has produced a July report updating lawmakers on the agency’s progress.

The July report notes that over the past decade the GAO has offered the Census Bureau 106 recommendations. As of June 2019, only 31 recommendations had not been fully implemented.

The GAO finds the primary concerns for the Census Bureau to be (1) the use of innovations that are not expected to be fully tested, (2) continued challenges in implementing information technology (IT) systems, and (3) significant cybersecurity risks to its systems and data.

The office encouraged the Census Bureau to learn from the 2010 Census’ mistakes regarding the “ensuring that the Bureau’s organizational culture and structure, as well as its approach to strategic planning, human capital management, internal collaboration, knowledge sharing, capital decision-making, risk and change management, and other internal functions are aligned toward delivering more cost-effective outcomes.”

The report ultimately called for continued attention by management to ensure that preparation and recommendations are on track.

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