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Government Report Says Census Bureau Is Behind On Staffing Up And Cybersecurity

MARY LOUISE KELLY (HOST): It is 2020. That means it's a census year in the U.S. And the Census Bureau is behind on recruiting workers to help with its count of every single person who lives here. A government watchdog flagged the hiring problems in a new report today. What's more, it says the census, which for the first time is mostly online, faces big threats to its IT systems.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the 2020 census. He has just returned from a hearing about this on Capitol Hill. He's in the studio now.

Hey, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG (BYLINE): Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. So these recruiting concerns - what's going on with that?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau has a huge recruiting goal - 2.7 million applicants by early March. And this is a goal that the bureau is trying to meet while unemployment in the U.S. is a near 50-year low. And the Government Accountability Office released this report saying that Census Bureau has been missing its recruiting goals - these internal recruiting goals - all along since September.

And one thing to keep in mind here is that there's a lot of distrust in the federal government right now - means that the Census Bureau likely will have to send a lot of workers out to get historically undercounted groups counted. And let's not forget - this count determines how voting districts are redrawn, congressional seats, Electoral College votes, how those are redistributed among the states and how 1.5 trillion - that's with a T - a year in federal funding gets distributed to local communities. And the nationwide rollout of the census is in about four weeks, and the bureau needs a half million workers trained and knocking on doors by May.

KELLY: Wow. OK, so that's one snag. The other one we mentioned - that the U.S. Census will be conducted primarily online for the first time in the era of the Iowa caucus in which we live - this makes me nervous. What are the issues there?

WANG: Well, these are really unchartered waters for the Census Bureau. And just to be clear, they're also collecting responses on paper, as well as by phone. But they hope to do it mostly online to be more efficient, to save money.

But we just learned today from the GAO report the bureau tested its main IT system for online responses, and it found out that not enough users were able to use it at the same time. And this is a civic event - the census - that the federal government requires the participation of every household in the country. And so the bureau has made a last-minute switch to a backup system. The concern here - it doesn't have enough time to fully test this new system.

KELLY: I mentioned you just came from Capitol Hill, where there was a hearing about this today. Lawmakers were asking all kinds of questions. How'd that go?

WANG: Well, the chair of the House Oversight Committee - Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York - she called the GAO's findings troubling. And she went straight to the heart of these issues with the very first question posed to the Census Bureau director, Steven Dillingham. Let's take a listen to the exchange.


CAROLYN MALONEY (D-NY, REP): So why is the Census Bureau so far behind in so many aspects of the preparations across the board?

STEVEN DILLINGHAM (DIRECTOR, US CENSUS BUREAU): Madam Chairwoman, that's a very good question. And let me say that from the point of view of the Census Bureau, we are not behind.

WANG: You know, Steven Dillingham, the bureau's director, tried to reassure the room, emphasizing that the bureau set ambitious goals and that it's working through tens of thousands of tests for the IT systems. And yes, there have been delays, he said. But he's optimistic that they'll still hit their ultimate hiring goal of a half million workers. But my sense is that did not really appease a lot of the lawmakers, a lot of the census advocates who are watching. And there's also a really big unknown here.

KELLY: Which is what?

WANG: We don't know how the public will respond to the 2020 census once it's rolled out nationally. Letters with instructions are going out around March 12 to most households. If most households fill out the census form online, by form, by phone or on paper before late April, that means the bureau doesn't need to send as many workers to go door-knocking. But if many people do not participate immediately - and it's likely in this current political climate where there's a lot of distrust in the government, concerns about cybersecurity - this is going to be a very, very messy census.

KELLY: And a very busy year for you, it sounds like.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census for NPR. Thanks, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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