December 15, 2010

GAO: 2010 Census Operations Successful, But Fundamental Design Needs Reform

A few days before the Census Bureau is scheduled to release the first population totals from the 2010 Census, the Government Accountability Office published three reports evaluating key operations of the decennial count. In a letter to Congress summarizing its findings, the agency pronounced the 2010 Census “operationally successful,” but also suggested that the basic census  design “is no longer capable of delivering a cost-effective headcount.”

One of GAO’s reports on the 2010 Census evaluates the the non-response followup operation and other key field operations, and looks ahead to reforms for the 2020 Census. A second report examines several follow-up operations intended to reduce errors from the original count. A third GAO report looks at outreach and enumeration programs for “hard-to-count” populations such as immigrants and the homeless. This posting describes the first report; subsequent postings will explore the other two.

Here are some key sentences, from its letter to Congress, summarizing GAO’s conclusions in the first report: “Although some additional work and more data releases lie ahead, and information on the accuracy of the count is not scheduled to be available until early 2012, this much is clear: The Bureau generally completed the enumeration phase of the 2010 Census on schedule and consistent with its operational plans, and largely surmounted a series of risks that jeopardized the success of the headcount…an operationally successful census was no small accomplishment.”

However, the letter notes, “the 2010 Census required an unprecedented commitment of resources, including recruiting more than 3.8 million total applicants–roughly equivalent to the entire population of Oregon–for its temporary workforce; and it escalated in cost from an initial estimate of $11.3 billion in 2001 to around $13 billion, the most expensive population count in our nation’s history.

“Further, our oversight of the 1990, 2000, and now 2010 Censuses suggests that the fundamental design of the enumeration–in many ways unchanged since 1970–is no longer capable of delivering a cost-effective headcount given the nation’s increasing diversity and other sociodemographic trends.”

Non-Response Follow-up

The Census Bureau’s non-response follow-up operation, in which it sent enumerators to knock on doors of 48.6 million housing units from which census forms had not been received, was made easier because the mail back response rate was within its target, “an important accomplishment” in a nation where people increasingly are hard to reach, GAO noted. The follow-up operation was completed early and under budget, in part because the high U.S. unemployment rate held down turnover and helped the bureau recruit skilled workers.

But GAO also noted that some local census officials complained they were being pushed to finish too quickly, and that fast-paced work was associated with collection of less-complete household data (for example, more interviews with neighbors if household members could not be reached.). The GAO also reported logistical problems with operations to fingerprint the temporary census workforce (Congress required this for the first time).The GAO report also concluded that technology glitches–specifically, problems with a workflow-management system–led to backlogs that made it difficult for the agency to evaluate how well the count was going in real time. And it cited potential problems with the bureau’s list of addresses that cropped up during another follow-up operation.

Fundamental Reforms Needed

The larger issue, GAO concluded, is that tweaking the census design that has been used for decades “will not bring about the reforms needed to control costs while maintaining accuracy given ongoing and newly emerging societal trends.” If current trends continue, the bill for the 2020 census could total $30 billion, GAO noted, and the results may not be any better. The Census Bureau already has begun to rethink its approach to census-taking, GAO said. Usually, interest in the census lulls in mid-decade, but the GAO report said Congress and others with an interest in the census will need to maintain focus on reforms if they are to work.

Among the areas that need to be explored are incorporating the internet and administrative records (for example, drivers’ licenses) into census-taking, if it can be done without sacrificing confidentiality and timeliness, GAO said. The agency also suggested looking into private-sector and other information sources to support the census, using the American Community Survey to test new methods and systems, and improving the Census Bureau’s technology acquisition. It recommended enhanced efforts to use partner organizations and social media. And GAO pointed out that the bureau needs to wrestle with the delicate issue of the trade-off between cutting costs and potentially compromising accuracy.

Census Reform Bill

In addition to proposing specific fixes for problems found during this year’s census-taking, GAO also recommended the bureau develop an operational plan for 2020 that includes a vast amount of regularly updated information. The plan should incorporate public comment and be made available via social media tools, GAO said.

The GAO report said that a Census Bureau reform bill passed by the Senate on Dec. 8 requires the bureau to submit an annual plan much like the one GAO suggested. The GAO report also noted approvingly that the bill includes a fixed five-year term for the census director, who now serves at the pleasure of the president and customarily changes with each new administration. The bill, also pending in the House, has been endorsed by all seven living former census directors (who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations) as well as by a variety of scientific and other organizations.