The decennial census earned a place on the Government Accountability Office’s 2017 High Risk List, due to its information technology-oriented agenda, according to Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at GAO.

GAO released its 2017 High Risk List on Feb. 15. The list, issued every two years, identifies Federal programs that are especially vulnerable to fraud, waste, and mismanagement. These flagged initiatives pose potential risks to public health, service delivery, national security, economic growth, and privacy. They also put $1 billion or more at risk.

The decennial census appeared on GAO’s High Risk List in 2009 as a source of potential operational risks. Its presence on the 2017 list, however, hinges more on IT-related issues. Goldenkoff said that impending cybersecurity concerns contributed to the  Census Bureau’s placement on the list.

Census is introducing four initiatives in the 2020 census that will save more than $5 billion, according to the GAO’s list. IT is the fulcrum of many of these initiatives, which include a self-response survey option via the Internet, the use of “in-office” procedures rather than street canvassing, an automated case management system for data collection, and the replacement of enumerator-collected data with state and Federal administrative records.

“The Census Bureau has not used any of these innovations before. One of our concerns is over cybersecurity issues. These innovations are being developed by different parts of the Census Bureau,” Goldenkoff said in an exclusive interview with MeriTalk. “It’s not a question of whether they’ll be up and running in time, but whether they can meet the capacity of the census.”

Census’ four initiatives are meant to temper the increasing amounts of money and manpower required to tally the country, GAO states. According to GAO’s report, the census cost $9.4 billion in 2000 and $12.3 billion in 2010. In addition to billions of dollars, the census requires a great deal of manpower. Deirdre Dalpiaz Bishop, chief of the Census Bureau’s geography division who spoke at Esri’s Fed GIS Conference Feb. 13, said that 150,000 walking canvassers conducted tallies during the 2010 census.

According to Goldenkoff, Census will run a complete “end-to-end test” of the four initiatives in 2018. Until then, the agency is conducting tests on a smaller scale. Some of these preliminary tests have already uncovered some important figures, he said. For example, Census found that 25 percent of households in recent field tests could not be contacted by enumerators, even after six attempts. According to GAO, these shortcomings are due to an increasing number of gated communities, more language barriers, and enumerators’ failure to visit homes at varying times.

“I am particularly concerned to find that the 2020 census has been included on the list this year,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who spoke at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing Feb. 15. “To me, the census is the intersection of IT and government.”

Information sharing is also a key element of Census’ plan for 2020. GAO reported that Census wants to facilitate sharing “information already provided to Federal and state governments as they administer other programs.” Goldenkoff stated that the U.S. Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service have been receptive to this information sharing initiative.

“There has been a lot of sharing going on,” Goldenkoff said.

The 2020 decennial census joins Federal programs that serve tribes and the Federal government’s environmental liabilities as the High Risk List’s three new areas of concern. This year’s list outlines a total of 34 areas of risk for the Federal government.

At nearly 700 pages, the 2017 report also outlines the progress and pitfalls of programs mentioned in GAO’s 2015 risk list. GAO states that 23 of the last list’s 32 high-risk areas “have met or partially met all five criteria for removal from the High Risk List.”

GAO’s five criteria are: leadership commitment, agency capacity, an action plan, monitoring efforts, and demonstrated progress. Two areas, namely the Department of Defense’s polar-orbiting weather satellites and the Department of the Interior’s restructuring of offshore oil oversight, have been expanded upon in the 2017 list.

Only one area of risk—managing terrorism-related information—has been removed from the list since 2015. However, Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of GAO, said the agency will continue monitoring terrorism information, even though the item is no longer on the list.

The decennial census, Goldenkoff said, is likely to remain on this list as Census continues to conduct tests to reveal any flaws that could affect the 2020 count.

“That’s what these tests are designed to do,” Goldenkoff said. “It most definitely will be on the list until 2019.”


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of times Census has appeared on the High Risk List.

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Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Big Data, FITARA, Homeland Security, Education, Workforce Issues, and Civilian Agencies.