Written By ESR News Blog Editor Thomas Ahearn
In February of 2018, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an audit report entitled “2020 Census: The Bureau’s Background Check Office Is Not Fully Prepared for the 2020 Census” that reviewed the revised background check policies and procedures of the United States Census Bureau as well as the Bureau’s plan for accommodating the background check and hiring needs of the 2020 Census.
The audit report from the OIG – which works to improve the efficiency of the U.S. Department of Commerce – found escalating costs and inadequate quality assurance practices pose risks to 2020 Census background check activities, the Census Bureau is not adequately monitoring contractor activities, and program officials are not always allocating background check costs to the correct fund. Specifically, the audit report found:
- Escalating costs and inadequate quality assurance practices pose risks to 2020 Census background check activities. Since October 2010, the Bureau has used a series of time-and-materials (T&M) and labor-hour contracts – at a cost of $16.7 million – to support its background check activities. These types of contracts are considered high-risk because the price is not fixed and depends on the number of labor hours that contractors need to complete the requirements. There is no incentive to the contractor to control the cost or ensure labor efficiency.
- The Bureau is not adequately monitoring contractor activities. We identified issues specifically related to the manner in which program officials are currently managing contractors, as well as the manner in which both program officials and contracting officials are administering the current T&M contract. Unless program officials begin performing required oversight and surveillance, the expenditures scheduled for the remainder of the first option period and remaining three option periods ($11,132,002.56) may be considered funds to be put to better use.
- Program officials are not always allocating background check costs to the correct fund. Program officials did not understand that costs for specific activities, such as processing background checks for decennial census applicants, should be charged against the correct funding sources. As a result, between January 2016 and April 2017, a total of 22,704 hours, at a cost of $1.1 million, were allocated to the wrong project codes.
In the interests of national security, all persons hired for a federal job undergo, at a minimum, a basic background check to ensure that they are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.” The Census Bureau relies on background checks to ensure public safety and protect sensitive household data. The audit report recommendations included:
- Use available data to estimate the number of staff needed to complete background checks to support the 2020 Census workload and assess whether a T&M contract is needed or if there are other, more efficient methods to control costs.
- Develop written policies and procedures that address supervisory and employee responsibilities in approving background check applications.
- Evaluate whether the current contract is being managed as a personal services contract and make the necessary changes required to prevent circumventing the Federal Acquisition Regulation.
- Train contracting and program officials to ensure they perform proper oversight and surveillance of service contracts.
- Train program officials to charge salary costs appropriately.
- Verify the obligation of appropriated funds for background checks and determine whether they have been apportioned and allotted correctly.
Pursuant to Department Administrative Order 213-5, the Census Bureau must submit an action plan to the OIG that addresses the recommendations in this report within 60 calendar days. The final report will be posted on OIG’s website. The complete initial audit report of the Census Bureau background check program is at www.oversight.gov/sites/default/files/oig-reports/2018-02_27_OIG-18-015-A.pdf.
This is not the first time that the background check process used by the Census Bureau has come under fire. In April 2016, ESR News reported that the Census Bureau agreed to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed the criminal background check system used to hire workers for the 2010 census racially discriminated against African American and Hispanic job applicants with arrest records.
The settlement ended a lawsuit claiming that job applicants for the 2010 Census with an arrest record for any offense had to produce “official court documentation” of the disposition of their arrests within 30 days to remain eligible for work. This requirement caused 93 percent of the job applicants with an arrest record – approximately 700,000 people – to be excluded from being hired for Census jobs.
A website for the lawsuit stated the background check program excluded people “with old and minor convictions for non-criminal offenses, misdemeanors, and other crimes that do not involve violence or dishonesty, which are irrelevant according to Census’ own policy for work in the field or at a desk job.” The Census Bureau was required to design new criteria for their background check program for the 2020 census.
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