COVID-19 Challenges Execution of the 2020 Census

Published: June 17, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCENSUSCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicGovernment Performance

A recent GAO report identifies IT, communication, staffing and data quality risks facing the 2020 Census due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Takeaways:

  • Disruptions to the 2020 Census by the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a domino effect of challenges the Census Bureau must work through to achieve a successful and reliable decadal count.
  • A GAO report outlines multiple factors the Census Bureau must consider, including potential risks in the security, IT testing and data quality of the count, to execute one of the nation’s most important surveys.
  • Though major contracts are in place for the 2020 Census, additional support at the agency or prime contractor levels may be required to help the agency adjust to operational and schedule changes caused by the pandemic.

Several programs across the federal sector are experiencing pauses and delays due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Census – despite years of preparation for the nation’s critical count – claimed no exception to the global crisis. With in-office operations halted and a re-oriented focus on current events, the decadal survey suspended field operations in March 2020, forcing bureau officials to extend several program due dates this year. Among them, in-field operations suspended until June 1, nonresponse follow-up (NRFU) activities from July 31 to October 31, and the agency is seeking a four-month extension to deliver survey results from December 31 to April 30, 2021.

Despite some in-field operations resuming in May 2020, the Census Bureau faces numerous challenges from the unexpected disruption to the count’s activities.

Last week, the GAO issued a report outlining the risks the Commerce agency must work through to ensure a secure, reliable and successful count. Even before the pandemic, the GAO kept a wary eye on the 2020 Census, placing the program on its High-Risk list in 2017 since the count would rely on various innovations and new technologies.  

The government’s watchdog agency found that delays and changes to 2020 Census operations due to COVID-19, “present further risks to an accurate, timely, and cost-effective count. As operations resume, the Bureau will need to consider multiple factors to ensure the implementation and quality of the count.”

Accordingly, the Census Bureau made progress in answering some challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic:

Program Challenge Caused by COVID-19

Census Bureau Response

The printing contractor experienced staffing shortages, delaying 2020 Census mailings

The bureau delayed the remaining fourth and fifth mailings and decided to send an additional sixth mailing prior to the start of NRFU

The bureau’s call centers experienced reduced capacity or closures, increasing caller wait time and call abandon rates

The bureau relaxed requirements of the service level agreement with contractor and stood up a return call back feature while also allowing a remote workforce to assist those requesting a call back

Area census office managers expressed dissatisfaction on the clarity and timeliness of Bureau’s communication during the pandemic

The Bureau created a COVID-19 Internal Task Force to form a communications plan, and deciding and communicating procedural changes to the survey as effects of the pandemic progress

Upon resumption of operations, the bureau hired l more field staff than originally anticipated to meet compressed time frames and work within pandemic constraints

The bureau purchases PPE for all field office staff before starting operations, and acquires 125,000 additional handheld devices for increased field staff

The bureau’s advertisement campaign is challenged by a time of social distancing

Census increased its original $500M communications campaign budget by at least $160M, resorting to alternative advertisement methods including printed and promotional items in free lunch packages handed out by schools

Delays in data collection produces risks in data quality due to data processing under compressed time frames

The bureau creates the 2020 Data Quality Executive Governance Group to provide guidance on data quality efforts and facilitate working groups to identify new ways to assess and ensure quality of the count

Despite these actions taken by the bureau, work to accommodate the changes and challenges to the 2020 Census by the pandemic is far from over.  In the coming months, the bureau must consider several factors to continue implementation of the survey.

For example, the Bureau must continue to assess staffing levels to perform additional performance and scalability testing related to the addition of enumerator handheld devices. Additionally, “the time frames for reducing contractor-provided IT servers, storage capacity, and software licenses supporting 2020 Census operations would need to be reassessed to take into consideration the changes in the timing of the field operations,” according to the GAO report.  

Moreover, the bureau must ensure a sufficient number of laptops is available to field office managers in the case of a COVID-19 resurgence resulting in additional intermittent remote work operations.

The Census must also adjust plans for Group Quarters and Service-Based Enumeration. Officials are reviewing and coordinating efforts to ensure counts for those at places such as soup kitchens and shelters do not fall victim to recall bias due to the halt of survey efforts from March to May 2020.

Overall, the Census Bureau has its hands full when it comes to the 2020 Census and the challenges in the program due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors certainly present chances for contractors to step in and assist the agency with navigating such unprecedented issues in the census.