A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the U.S. Census Bureau delayed decisions regarding IT plans and capabilities for the 2020 Census, which led to schedule impacts, cost increases, and reduced scope.

GAO also explained that the Census Bureau is incorporating some of the IT lessons learned from the run-up to the 2020 Census to get an earlier start on tech issues for the 2030 Census.

The Census Bureau relies heavily on IT systems and infrastructure to conduct its decennial census. The bureau developed and deployed 52 IT systems for the 2020 Census, including several developed as part of an enterprise-wide initiative called the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP).

GAO found the Census Bureau “did not prioritize decisions about IT capabilities early in the decade,” ultimately leaving the bureau unable to complete security assessments before deploying the IT systems for the 2018 Census Test.

“Although the bureau initiated the enterprise-wide CEDCaP IT modernization program in 2014, it did not make decisions about whether to build or buy CEDCaP capabilities (e.g., for internet self-response) until May 2016,” the report says. “This gave the bureau less than 2 years to procure, develop, test, and integrate all of the systems and infrastructure before the 2018 Census Test, which was the bureau’s final opportunity to test all key systems and operations to ensure readiness for the 2020 Census.”

Additionally, the Census Bureau’s delayed IT decisions led to inaccurate cost estimates. The bureau’s IT costs for the 2020 Census had grown from $3.41 billion in its October 2015 estimate to $4.97 billion as of December 2017, according to GAO.

GAO also found that the Census Bureau reduced the scope of the CEDCaP program in 2017. In doing so, the bureau continued the development of CEDCaP systems that were planned for the 2020 Census, but it stopped any CEDCaP capabilities that were planned to be used for future surveys.

The bureau formally closed the CEDCaP program in March 2020 “without delivering enterprise-wide data collection and processing capabilities,” GAO said.

Despite the impacts of these delayed IT decisions, GAO found the bureau has begun to incorporate several lessons learned from the 2020 Census into a follow-on effort to CEDCaP, known as the Data Ingest and Collection for Enterprise (DICE) program.

“These lessons include focusing on the schedule and timing of operations, implementing Agile development methodologies, and reducing the scope of capabilities to be delivered,” GAO said. “For example, in an effort to make IT decisions early in the decade, the DICE program officially began in April 2021, approximately 3 ½ years earlier in the 10-year decennial lifecycle when compared to CEDCaP.”

GAO concluded these actions “should help the bureau deliver its planned functionality for the 2030 Census.”

GAO recommended the Census Bureau “develop a plan to improve resiliency of its 2030 Census research and testing activity.” The bureau agreed with the recommendation and concurred that lessons learned from IT development and privacy controls “can be applied to 2030 planning.”

Read More About
More Topics
Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.