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Government watchdog: Census Bureau running short on time

By MIKE SCHNEIDERJuly 24, 2019
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U.S. Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham testifies before the House Oversight subcommittee on Beyond the Citizenship Question: Repairing the Damage and Preparing to Count 'We the People' in 2020', hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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U.S. Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham testifies before the House Oversight subcommittee on Beyond the Citizenship Question: Repairing the Damage and Preparing to Count 'We the People' in 2020', hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The U.S. Census Bureau is running short on time to complete key parts of its planning for the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident, officials with a government watchdog agency told lawmakers Wednesday.

U.S. Government Accountability Office officials told members of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that the bureau is at risk of falling behind on hiring, implementing systems for online responses to the questionnaire and some cybersecurity matters.

“We are running short on time before key census operations begin,” said Nick Marinos, the GAO’s director of information technology and cybersecurity.

GAO officials said the bureau has hired only about 900 of the 1,500 specialists it had hoped to have by now for outreach in minority communities for the 2020 Census next spring, while around 870 candidates are still waiting on background checks. The bureau eventually hopes to hire almost a half million temporary workers for next year’s count.

The bureau has IT systems for five key operations that are at risk of not meeting milestones for testing, and as of two months ago there were 330 security-related corrective actions that need to be taken, according to GAO officials.

“I believe we are majorly behind the 8-ball at this point,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told lawmakers he is confident there will be a complete and accurate count. The bureau is working with the Department of Homeland Security and private sector experts on cybersecurity.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure we have the best minds, the best tools and everything we can to deal with it,” Dillingham said.

The testimony came about two weeks after President Donald Trump’s administration ended its bid to add a citizenship question. Trump instead directed federal agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.

Democratic leaders had accused Trump of pushing for the question to suppress Latino and immigrant participation in the count that determines how many congressional seats each state gets and how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are distributed.

Lawmakers asked Dillingham why the citizenship question was included in some of the 480,000 test questionnaires sent out last month, ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court decision nixing the question from being added. Dillingham explained it was to examine how the question would affect response rates in the event the high court had ruled in favor of the question. More than 200,000 responses have been submitted to the bureau, but officials haven’t yet looked at their content, he said.

At least one Republican lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, expressed relief the fight over the citizenship question was over.

“We have spent way too much time on the citizenship question,” said Meadows, a Trump confidant.

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