2010 Census:

Key Efforts to Include Hard-to-Count Populations Went Generally as Planned; Improvements Could Make the Efforts More Effective for Next Census

GAO-11-45: Published: Dec 14, 2010. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2010.

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To overcome the long-standing challenge of enumerating hard-to-count (HTC) groups such as minorities and renters, the U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau), used outreach programs, such as paid advertising, and partnered with thousands of organizations to enlist their support for the census. The Bureau also conducted Service-Based Enumeration (SBE), which was designed to count people who frequent soup kitchens or other service providers, and the Be Counted/Questionnaire Assistance Center (QAC) program, designed to count individuals who believed the census had missed them. As requested, GAO assessed how the design of these efforts compared to 2000 and the extent to which they were implemented as planned. GAO reviewed Bureau budget, planning, operational, and evaluation documents; observed enumeration efforts in 12 HTC areas; surveyed local census office managers; and interviewed Bureau officials.

The Bureau better positioned itself to reach out to and enumerate HTC populations in 2010 in part by addressing a number of key challenges from 2000. The Bureau's outreach efforts were generally more robust compared to 2000. For example, compared to 2000, the Bureau used more reliable data to target advertising; focused a larger share of its advertising dollars on HTC groups, such as non-English-speaking audiences; and strengthened its monitoring abilities so that the Bureau was able to run additional advertising in locations where mail response rates were lagging. The Bureau also significantly expanded the partnership program by hiring about 2,800 partnership staff in 2010 compared to around 600 in 2000. As a result, staff were not spread as thin. The number of languages they spoke increased from 35 in 2000 to 145 for the 2010 Census. Despite these enhancements, the outreach efforts still faced challenges. For example, while most of the partnership staff GAO interviewed reported having mutually supportive relationships with local census offices, about half of the local census office managers surveyed were dissatisfied with the level of coordination, noting duplication of effort in some cases. Additionally, a tracking database that partnership staff were to use to help manage their efforts was not user-friendly nor was it kept current. The Bureau also improved the key enumeration programs aimed at HTC groups and the efforts were generally implemented as planned, but additional refinements could improve them for 2020. For example, the Bureau expanded SBE training by teaching staff how to enumerate all types of SBE facilities, which gave the Bureau more flexibility in scheduling enumerations, and advance visits helped enhance service providers' readiness for the enumeration. Nevertheless, while most local census office managers were satisfied with SBE staffing levels, pockets of dissatisfaction existed and observers noted what appeared to be a surplus of enumerators with little work to do in some locations. While overstaffing can lead to unnecessarily higher labor costs, understaffing can also be problematic because it can affect the accuracy of the overall count, and it will be important for the Bureau to review the results of SBE to staff SBE efficiently in 2020. For the Be Counted/QAC program, the Bureau addressed visibility and site selection challenges from 2000 by developing banners to prominently display site locations and hours of operation and updating site selection guidance. For 2010, the Bureau opened around 38,000 sites and completed the monthlong operation under budget. However, the Bureau experienced recurring challenges with ensuring that the sites were visible from street level and were in areas with potential for high levels of activity, and the overall effort was resource intensive relative to the average of 20 forms that were returned and checked in from each site. Moving forward, it will be important for the Bureau to explore ways to maximize the program's ability to increase the number of forms checked in for 2020. GAO recommends that the Bureau take steps to improve the effectiveness of its outreach and enumeration activities aimed at HTC groups, including developing a predictive model to better allocate paid advertising funds, improving coordination between partnership and local census staff, revisiting SBE staffing guidance, and ensuring Be Counted/QAC sites are more visible and optimally located. Commerce generally agreed with the overall findings and recommendations.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and to improve some of the Bureau's key efforts to enumerate HTC populations, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to determine the factors that led to the staffing issues observed during SBE and take corrective actions to ensure more efficient SBE staffing levels in 2020.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Census Bureau issued its final report on the assessment of the Service Based Enumeration in January 2013. The assessment includes the number of people counted in this special enumeration activity but did not address staffing issues. The Bureau reported that plans for Service Based Enumeration activities for 2020 have not been defined.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and to improve some of the Bureau's key efforts to enumerate HTC populations, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to assess visitation, response rate, and other applicable data on Be Counted/QAC locations and use that information to revise site selection guidance for 2020.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: During April 2013, the Bureau reported the completion of 2010 Coverage Measurement assessments that will be used to inform the decisions of teams planning for implementation of the Be Counted/Questionnaire Assistance Center program. The Bureau expects to make decisions on site seelction for the Be Counted/Questionnaire Assistance Centers closer to the second half of the decade.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and to improve the Bureau's marketing/outreach efforts, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure that promotional materials, including in-language materials for the partnership program, are available when partnership staff are first hired.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: During April 2013, the Bureau restated its commitment having promotional materials available for partnership staff at the kickoff of the partnership program. The Census Bureau said they do not anticipate funding to develop promotional materials before 2016 and plan table the issue until the operation is funded.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and to improve the Bureau's marketing/outreach efforts, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to improve the user-friendliness of the partnership database to help ensure more timely updates of contact information and enhance its use as a management tool.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: During April 2013, the Bureau reported on their continued discussions around improving the usability of the partnership database. In addition, the Bureau reported, as funding becomes available, they will research other database options for tracking partnership information to be used as a management tool.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and improve the Bureau's marketing/outreach efforts, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to develop mechanisms to increase coordination and communication between the partnership and local census office staff. Possible actions include offering more opportunities for joint training, establishing protocols for coordination, and more effectively leveraging the partnership contact database to better align partnership outreach activities with local needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: During April 2013, the Bureau reported the completion of assessments on activities from the 2010 communications campaign. The Bureau plans to review training plans for 2020 with an eye towards further clarifying expectations, roles, responsibilities of partnership and operations staff. The Census Bureau stated these actions will result in a strategic plan to improve interaction between partnership and operations staff that institutionalizes best practices from 2010. The Bureau expects to make decisions on ways to increase coordination and communications between the partnership and local census office staff closer to the second half of the decade.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and to improve the Bureau's marketing/outreach efforts, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to use evaluation results, response rate, and other data to develop a predictive model that would inform decisions on how much and how best to allocate paid media funds for 2020.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: During April 2013, the Bureau reported the completion of assessments on activities from the 2010 communications campaign. The Bureau plans to use the assessments to inform teams making decisions on allocating paid media funds for the 2020 communications campaign. The Bureau expects to make decisions on paid media funds closer to the second half of the decade.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of the Bureau's outreach and enumeration efforts, especially for HTC populations, should they be used again in the 2020 Census, and to improve some of the Bureau's key efforts to enumerate HTC populations, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to evaluate the extent to which each special enumeration activity improved the count of traditionally hard-to-enumerate groups and use the results to help inform decision making on spending for these programs in 2020.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: During January 2013, the Census Bureau issued its final report on the assessment of Service Based Enumeration -- activities intended to count traditionally hard-to-enumerate groups. The Bureau reported that recommendations from the assessment report will be distributed to research teams, when established, to inform decision making on spending for 2020 Service Based Enumeration activities.

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