2020 Census Continues to Hit Planning Hurdles

Published: November 05, 2014

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The Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau has big plans for the upcoming decennial census, aiming to turn over a new leaf around costs and sustainability. Progress over the last year, however, shows the effort is encountering many of the same old problems.


The constitutionally mandated decennial census conducted by the Census Bureau determines the allocation of billions of dollars in federal funds to states and realigns the boundaries for Congressional districts. Since 1970, the cost of enumerating households has climbed from around $16 to around $98 in 2010. During that same time period, the mail response rate dropped from 78 percent to 63 percent. The 2010 census was the costliest in U.S. history, weighing in at $13 billion. Throughout its strategic plans and program documents, the Department of Commerce continues to reiterate its commitment to conducting the 2020 Census at lower costs per housing unit than the 2010 Census. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found issues with managing, planning, and implementing IT solutions for both the 2000 and 2010 enumerations. These issues contributed to acquisition problems and cost overruns.

Planning Progress and Missteps

In September 2013, the GAO released a progress report on efforts to contain enumeration costs. The Census Bureau launched a number of cost-saving, modernization initiatives in advance of the 2020 Census. These efforts targeted changes like establishing enterprise standards and tools for IT management and reducing duplicative investments. The GAO found that the Census Bureau had made progress towards long-term planning, but the roadmap for the 2020 census still lacked milestones for decision and cost estimates. The study also determined that while the Census Bureau identified some cost saving approaches, the new implementation of these practices for the 2020 census carries operational risk. The Census Bureau estimates that it could save up to $2 billion by using administrative records in 2020 to decrease the need for door-to-door visits. In particular, using the internet to include a self-response option stands to improve response rate and lower costs by reducing the number of households visited by field staff.

Later in 2013, the GAO reported that the Census Bureau was not producing reliable schedules for the 2020 Research and Testing program and the Geographic Support System Initiative. These two programs as the most relevant to constructing the master address file for the 2020 census. In both cases, activities were omitted from the schedule, which could potentially lead to unforeseen delays. While many activities were linked sequentially, the schedules lacked the preceding and following activities. Thus, the schedules were not producing accurate dates, which would interfere with determining whether the work is on schedule.

In the spring of 2014, a review of the 2020 Decennial Census program found that the Census Bureau had made progress in researching and testing IT options, but several of the supporting projects lacked schedules and plans. The absence of this scheduling data raises uncertainty about whether the projects will be completed in time to support operational design planning slated for September 2015. Four of the six IT research and development projects did not have finalized schedules. As for the two projects that did have completed schedules? They were not estimated to be completed until after the September 2015 design decision date. The same review found inconsistencies with the risk assessments and mitigation plans for the associated IT options.

By the summer of 2014, the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General released an assessment of the Census Bureau’s mandatory budget cuts. The review determined that cost information inaccuracies made it impossible to determine the impact of budget reductions. Further, the OIG found that internal practices increased the risk of incorrect or fraudulent charges. Four recommendations were issued for improvements, all centering on processes and procedures for the programs oversight. In addition to agreeing to the recommendations, the Census Bureaus acknowledged the “deficiency in the completeness” of its documentation around budget estimates and financial decisions.

This fall, the Census Bureau’s efforts to identify data sources for addressing and mapping requirements were examined. Once again, inconsistencies were found in the research and planning processes. These gaps included failing to document cost and quality information for executed decisions related to use address and mapping data from state, local governments, other agencies, and a commercial vendor. Additionally, management approval for the data source decisions failed to be documented, which would present accountability and transparency issues for future sourcing decisions.

Going Forward

Census has just completed the research and testing phase of the program, which ran from FY 2012 to FY 2014. The nest phase runs from FY 2015 to FY 2018 and will incorporate operational development and systems testing. FY 2015 activities are expected to focus on supporting research and testing infrastructure. Projects slated for this fiscal year include automation, workload management, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) incremental development and research, enumeration system reuse, geographic program planning, IT security as well as a virtual office computing environment. In October, the Census Bureau released a request for information (RFI) as part of its market research into source for the Integrated Communications Program. Responses were due by the end of the month, and as of mid-October no decision on an acquisition strategy had be made yet. The mandated execution of this program and its expanding use of IT to execute the 2020 Decennial Census and to establish a sustainable model for future enumeration provide a number of elements for contractors to watch. In addition to the potential business opportunities associated with the census, the convergence of technologies like mobile computing, cloud environments, and data analytics will be a practical test of government technology adoption.