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Chris Mihm, Managing Director of Strategic Issues at GAO, discusses how the pandemic, weather-related events and design changes are raising the Census Bureau’s risk

The Sept. 30 deadline for the Census Bureau to stop collecting data is approaching, and the compressed timeline caused by the pandemic is leading to increased risk.

Chris Mihm, Managing Director of Strategic Issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, recently testified to Congress about this issue and spoke about it on “Government Matters” Tuesday. He has been working on census issues since before the 1990 Census.

The areas of attention Mihm outlined that will help ensure a complete and accurate census are similar to previous censuses but “almost on steroids,” Mihm said. He explained that the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters including hurricanes and wildfires, and a late design change are making it very challenging for the Census Bureau to get a complete and accurate count.

The deadline for the 2020 Census was initially extended because of the pandemic but was then changed back to the current statutory deadline of the end of December. “What that did is it cut a month off of field work; it cut 60 days off of the processing. All of this came late, obviously, in census year, and it’s really compressed their timeframes,” Mihm said.

Mihm stressed that it is important to fill out the census form if you have not already done so and to cooperate with the census taker if they come to your house. In addition, the Census Bureau needs to maintain hiring to address staffing shortages. And it is critical to make sure testing is conducted on the IT systems that will be used to process the data.

One area where the Census Bureau has found success this year is the implementation of the internet option for filling out the census, which tens of millions of people have used, according to Mihm. Lessons learned that can be applied to the 2030 Census, he said, include ensuring that technology is well-tested, that the pre-tests leading up to the census are used, and that there is enough load capacity to take census responses during peak periods.

“[The online option] is, I think, when all is said and done, going to be one of the great success stories of this census and what we hope in the end will be an overall success story,” Mihm stated.

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