What the Federal Government Can Learn from Conducting America’s First Online Census During a Global Pandemic

The critical role of the U.S. census cannot be overstated. Every 10 years, the census counts the residents of the United States. The census determines congressional apportionment and governs how trillions of dollars of federal funding is distributed throughout the country.

The census is the largest peacetime mobilization of federal workers conducted in America, with the goal to enumerate over 330 million residents.

For the first time ever, this year’s census provided Americans with an option to respond online. Bringing the census online introduced new risks. The potential for outside actors to interfere with this constitutionally mandated process ranks the decennial census among the highest security risks inside the U.S. government.

Just as the census began, and millions began completing their census online, a once-in-a-century global pandemic struck.

The pandemic placed a harsh spotlight on the consequences of government agencies’ failing to modernize their IT systems. This failure was most acute with state unemployment agencies struggling under the surge of claims from the millions of Americans who suddenly lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

In states like New Jersey, the governor made a public plea for individuals with expertise in specialized computer programming to help fix their legacy system dating back over 40 years.

Despite the threat of COVID-19, the first online census counted millions of residents thanks to the foresight of multiple federal administrators and congressional cooperation. Achieving successful delivery, particularly considering the challenges presented by the pandemic, would not have been possible without IT modernization.

The successful rollout and unassailable security of the modernized 2020 census is now a model for how government can and should leverage next-generation technology to meet its mission objectives, improve security and user experience and reduce life-cycle cost.

Many dedicated professionals worked over multiple years to design, upgrade, integrate and test systems to ensure the online option was easy to use, functioned smoothly and remained secure from the threat of cyberattacks. T-Rex Solutions, the company I lead, served as the technical integrator on the effort, assisting the Census Bureau with this ambitious, remarkable technical modernization.

As one of the first federal IT modernization efforts of this scale, there’s no question it was a high-risk, complex process. From a technology perspective, 52 individual systems had to be integrated into a System-of-Systems that all functioned in coordination with one another and remained protected by a state-of-the-art cyberdefense capability.

This was paralleled by the need for sophisticated and collaborative leadership. Census leaders, working in concert with T-Rex, oversaw a team of teams, comprised of 50 system teams, including associate contractors and suppliers, and an accelerated timeline to create this modernized System-of-Systems working together to digitize and protect the 2020 census.

Successful execution was no easy feat and was completed on schedule and under budget. It required appropriated funds from Congress, oversight from government agencies and vast coordination between federal departments and industry partners.

The timely execution of the census in light of COVID-19 would not have been possible without IT modernization. As the pandemic hit and the full impact of measures to protect U.S. residents was realized, census field operations were suspended and the online response option was extended.

At the start of the census, models forecasted 40 percent of respondents or roughly 57 million households would be counted through online enumeration. Instead, 53.5 percent of respondents completed the census online. Despite the increase in use, the online option, designed to scale to support up to 600,000 concurrent users, readily handled the influx of users and performed above expectations, collecting and protecting the data associated with 80 million U.S. households.

The integrity of this data is critical as it is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our functioning democracy. Its security is paramount. Its availability is critical. And its integrity must be irrefutable.

The global pandemic showed just how important government IT is, particularly during a crisis. When IT fails, it’s not just server errors and downtime. IT failure can be the difference between a devastating impact on American families, or an effective and efficient response. The success of America’s first online census is proof that with strong leadership, visionary thinking and bold innovation, government technology doesn’t have to be part of the problem. It can be the solution.


Seth Moore is the president and chief executive officer of T-Rex Solutions.

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