Census embraces better communication through enterprise risk management

The Census Bureau is taking a more integrated approach to managing risk, which also means changing agency culture as it prepares for the 2020 population count.

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By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

The Census Bureau is a little past the halfway point of a marathon. In a long-distance race, for most, the only record you try to beat is your own. In 2008, a $600 million contract to supply handheld devices for data collection in the 2010 Census fell apart. The poor showing of the handheld devices happened just before the 2010 Census.

As the bureau marches toward the 2020 count, it’s committed to go the distance to improve risk management and see red flags before they become four-alarm fires. 

“It was all about communication and awareness coming out of the 2010 Census and that’s been the goal of what our framework implementation has been about,” Office of Risk Management and Program Evaluation Chief Doug Clift.

He said at that point they became aware of the need to elevate risk management efforts at the bureau to the enterprise level. At the time of the scandal they were only doing basic risk management down at the program and project levels.

 “The biggest thing it enhances is communication up and down the agency--through all parts of the agency--to all employees, whatever their level, from executive management down to the line staff,” said Clift.

Programs are no longer born and bred in silos. Risks are identified and managed at every stage of the lifecycle. “You’re looking at all of these aspects at the same time,” he said.

One major milestone in the lifecycle of the 2020 Census will be here next month. The preliminary design decision for the decennial count will be released.

Clift said when things get isolated, or siloed, it’s a risk in-and-of-itself. “People can be blindsided and be unaware of the entire picture as it relates to a program or a project,” he said.

But, forming new channels of communications along with the necessary levels of trust doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s a culture change,” said Clift. “It becomes part of their job,”

He said employees “are incentivized to identify risks that could impact their programs or projects and then where necessary ask that they be elevated, at which point they can actually go all the way to our executive staff.”

The portfolio management and risk management frameworks force government to be established with stakeholders from different divisions and within directorates, said Clift.

That has led them to identify dependencies between different components and programs that, he said, they never would have identified before.

“One of the things agencies need to keep in mind when it comes to implementing a portfolio management or ERM framework, is it’s a marathon not a sprint,” said Clift. “You have to incrementally build these programs over time.”

He said what they’ve implemented so far at Census been a five year process. He advises agencies to: start with the long term goal in mind, enjoy small wins in the process, change the culture and implement the processes over time and mature as they go along.

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