A government watchdog said Thursday that it already considers the 2020 Census to be at high risk for problems, as the data collection endeavor faces a looming deadline next month.
In a new report, the Government Accountability Office says that the administration’s decision to cut short the counting period puts it at greater risk of producing an inaccurate count, noting that the agency has designated the 2020 Census to be “high risk” since 2017.
“Delays, the resulting compressed timeframes, implementation of untested procedures, and continuing challenges such as COVID-19 could escalate census costs and undermine the overall quality of the count,” the agency wrote.
The Census Bureau told CNN in a statement Friday that it had a completion rate of 79.2% for the 2020 census and its goal remains “a complete and accurate census that produces high quality data.”
“We appreciate GAO’s on-going efforts to keep Congress and other stakeholders aware of these matters, and we reaffirm our commitment to providing a timely and accurate enumeration,” the bureau said.
The report comes after the Trump administration earlier this month set September 30 — a full month earlier than originally planned — as the date to stop collecting responses, despite previously saying it needs extra time due to the pandemic. As recently as July, Census Bureau officials said publicly that they would need an extension to complete an accurate count of the nation’s population.
A coalition led by the National Urban League asked a federal judge on Tuesday to act promptly and extend the 2020 census response deadline, accusing the Trump administration in a lawsuit last week of illegally and unconstitutionally compressing the time the Census Bureau has to follow up with households that do not respond to the census survey.
Chris Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at GAO who helped lead work on the report, told CNN that the Bureau’s decision to end data collection one month earlier than planned “reduces the amount of time the Bureau has to follow-up on about 56 million households that did not initially respond to the census,” noting that “late design changes such as this with compressed timeframes, pose a risk to a complete and accurate count.”
Thursday’s report referenced potential issues with the Bureau’s nonresponse follow-up operation, noting that due to its complexity, “significant risks remain regarding how the systems will perform.”
“For example, if any aspect of the technical innovations— including the systems that support those innovations—do not perform as expected, the Bureau may incur significant costs to troubleshoot and resolve systems issues that arise,” the report continues. “In addition, if (nonresponse follow-up) systems do not perform as expected, the Bureau may miss scheduled milestones for completing the operation.”
The report also highlighted that while “the Bureau has implemented 90 of our recommendations,” as of this month, “21 of the recommendations have not been fully implemented and 10 of these are designated as priority recommendations.”
This story has been updated with Census Bureau comment.