2020 Census Plan Expects to Deliver over $5 Billion in Savings through Innovation

Published: October 07, 2015

DOCCybersecurityDigital GovernmentInnovationMobilityShared Services

The Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau is well into the planning and testing phases for the 2020 Census. Despite facing a range of environmental and technological challenges, an operational plan was released this month that promises significant cost savings over traditional approaches.

In early October 2015, officials at the U.S. Census Bureau announced the release of plans for the key operations, decisions, and testing required to execute the 2020 census. According to the announcement, “innovations planned for the 2020 Census will make it easier for people to respond and save taxpayers more than $5 billion over what it would cost using older methods.”

Challenges outlined in the plan include fiscal constraints, rapid technology evolution, declining response rate, increasing population diversity, a mobile population, and distrust in the government. To address these issues, the approach to the 2020 census intends to introduce innovation in several areas: reengineering address canvassing, optimizing self-response, utilizing administrative records and third-party data, and reengineering field operations. Field costs comprise some of the most expensive census activities like address canvassing and nonresponse follow-up. All four of the innovation areas aim to reduce field work costs.

Compared to prior years, the approach for the 2020 Census has an increased reliance on enterprise standards and solutions as well as shared services (through the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing solution and the Center for Enterprise Dissemination Services and Consumer Innovation solution). The field operations, expected to be a major cost driver, will rely heavily on automation. This will allow fieldworkers to operate remotely and collect data using handheld devices. Along with other reengineering activities, the plan estimates a potential $2.5 billion in savings related to field operations.

Estimates were also offered for the savings expected through the other innovation areas. Updating the approach to address canvassing stands to save $900 million. Improving self-response will reduce the need for costly in person follow-up, potentially saving $400 million through design changes. Changes related to the use of administrative records and third-party data could save $1.4 billion.

The release of the planning document marked a key milestone for the program, and the timeline laid out in the planning document provides an overview of development and testing activities over the next several years. Operational research and testing is scheduled to continue through the end-to-end test in in 2018. The research and testing phases are expected to be the greatest opportunities for reducing costs and achieving efficiencies. Performance testing is planned to start in 2019.

The bureau has been vocal about specific goals around costs savings, hoping to lower the cost per household from $124 in 2010 to $88 in 2020. With an ambitious plan to implement new approaches and technologies all at once, the effort represents a potential business opportunity for vendors positioned to support the bureau's vision.