Decennial Census:

Additional Actions Could Improve the Census Bureau's Ability to Control Costs for the 2020 Census

GAO-12-80: Published: Jan 24, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 23, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The average cost to count each housing unit rose from $70 in 2000 to $97 in 2010 (in constant 2010 dollars). While the U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) made changes to its budget structure from 2000 to 2010, they did not document the changes that would facilitate comparisons over time and cannot identify specific drivers of this cost growth. According to GAO’s Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide, an agency can strengthen its ability to control costs by using available cost data to make comparisons over time and identify and quantify trends. The Bureau faces the fundamental challenge of striking a balance between how best to control costs without compromising accuracy. However, the Bureau’s inability to identify specific actionable factors affecting past growth will make it difficult for the Bureau to focus its efforts to control costs for the 2020 Census.

The Bureau developed several design alternatives for the 2020 Census that could help reduce costs, but has not identified decision points when executives would review progress and decide whether the Bureau is prepared to move forward from one project phase to another. Office of Management and Budget guidance and previous GAO work support the use of these practices to strengthen an agency’s decision making on large-scale projects. Incorporating these practices in its 2020 planning could help the Bureau improve its ability to manage risk to achieve desired cost, schedule and performance outcomes.

The Bureau is taking steps to strengthen its life cycle cost estimates. However, the Bureau has not yet established guidance for developing cost estimates. The Bureau is scheduled to begin work on the 2020 Census estimate in fiscal year 2013 but has limited time to develop guidance. By finalizing such guidance, the Bureau can better ensure that it is developing comprehensive, accurate, and credible estimates for the 2020 Census.

Why GAO Did This Study

A complete count of the nation’s population is an enormous challenge requiring the U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) to balance requirements for accuracy with the need to control escalating costs. The 2010 Census was the costliest U.S. Census in history at about $13 billion, and was about 56 percent more costly than the $8 billion cost of the 2000 Census (in 2010 dollars). The fundamental challenge facing the Bureau going forward is cost effectively counting a population that is growing steadily larger, more diverse and becoming increasingly difficult to enumerate. As requested, this report assesses (1) the key factors affecting cost growth from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census; (2) the Bureau’s plans for controlling costs for the 2020 Census and what additional steps, if any, could be taken; and (3) the extent to which the Bureau’s plans for developing life cycle cost estimates for 2020 are consistent with best practices. The report is based on GAO’s analysis of Bureau data and documents as well as interviews with Bureau officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Census Director develop a method to identify and address specific factors that contribute to cost increases, identify decision points, and finalize guidance for the 2020 life cycle cost estimate. The Department of Commerce expressed broad agreement with the overall theme of the report but did not directly comment on the recommendations. It raised concerns about specific aspects of the summary of findings which GAO addressed as appropriate.

For more information, contact Robert Goldenkoff at (202) 512-2757 or goldenkoffr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Census Bureau provided the following update as of July 22, 2013 -- In January 2012, the 2020 Census Program formed the Lifecycle Cost Estimate Group. Currently, this group includes stakeholders from Decennial Management Division and the 2020 Research and Planning Office. However, as this effort evolves, stakeholders from Budget Division, Subject Matter Experts from the program divisions, and representatives from the Economic and Statistics Administration (ESA) will be added as needed. This group will be responsible for setting the guidance and policies for preparing the 2020 Lifecycle Cost Estimates. The Bureau plans to use the GAO Cost Assessment Guide, The Twelve Steps of a High-Quality Cost Estimating Process, that include such recommendations and best practices as: - Developing thorough documentation with a standardized format. This is already in place with the 2020 Business Plan as well as the Program Management and System Engineering and Integration plans. - Updating estimates with information that is more current. The Lifecycle Cost Estimate Group will revisit the Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) documentation that was submitted in the fall of 2010 and update with 2010 Census actuals. - Conducting sensitivity and uncertainty analysis - Using the Monte Carlo simulation to develop a range of cost estimates - Ensuring that Certified Cost Estimators prepare the lifecycle cost estimate - Obtaining an independent validation of the methodology used to obtain the estimates The Bureau will update the budget guidance, policies, and procedures in fiscal year 2014. However, the independent validation of the methodology used to obtain the estimates will not be complete until the end of fiscal year 2014. Target Completion Date: September 30, 2014

    Recommendation: GAO previously recommended that the Secretary of Commerce direct the Bureau to establish guidance, policies, and procedures for cost estimation that would meet best practice criteria. To help ensure that the Bureau produces a reliable and high-quality cost estimate for the 2020 Census, the Bureau should finalize guidance, policies, and procedures for cost estimation in accordance with best practices prior to developing the Bureau's initial 2020 life cycle cost estimate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Census Bureau sent the following update as of July 22, 2013 -- the Bureau will deliver a range of lifecycle cost estimates for some down-selected alternatives, with the FY 2015 Budget request. Cost will be a consideration when evaluating each alternative, however, it will not be the only deciding factor. The Bureau also needs to consider the feasibility of each alternative as well as which alternative will improve or maintain quality. The 2020 Census must strike the appropriate balance between cost and quality. The end goal is to adopt the best design that can deliver the highest quality census while reducing costs and managing risks. Each research and testing (R&T) project team will develop a study plan outlining the goal of the project, the expected outcome, and the methodology to be used to arrive at data to inform trade off analysis and decision-making. To help ensure efficient use of resources for 2020 R&T projects, and that the conclusions reached by the projects are sound and provide decision makers with reliable findings, the Bureaus is establishing internal Scientific and Methodological Review Panels. These panels will evaluate research designs, provide critical feedback and guidance to the research teams and assess the validity of any findings, conclusions and recommendations. The panels can interact, as appropriate, with external oversight groups. Although this effort of documenting the evaluation criterion for the design alternative began in FY 2012, it will be an ongoing effort of continually updating the documentation until the design alternatives are narrowed down by end of FY 2014 (now FY 2015). Target Completion Date: September 30, 2015

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's ability to control costs for the 2020 decennial and balance cost and quality, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Under Secretary of the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, to finalize how the Bureau will apply cost as an evaluation criterion for choosing among design alternatives for 2020 and ensure that all criteria are transparent, well documented, and consistently applied before alternatives are eliminated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Based on its 60-day letter response to our report, the Census Bureau will use the results from the 2020 Census Research and Testing phase to help determine the decision points for the remainder of the planning phases.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's ability to control costs for the 2020 decennial and balance cost and quality, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Under Secretary of the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, to identify decision points at the end of each planning phase and assign decision-making authority at the executive level, as well as consider adding decision points within phases to determine progress and readiness to proceed to the next phase.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Based on its 60-day letter response to our report, the Census Bureau will use a trade-off analysis from the design of the 2020 Census to examine the effect on cost and quality of various combinations of design paramters and will analyze the marginal costs and benefits of census activities.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's ability to control costs for the 2020 decennial and balance cost and quality, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Under Secretary of the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, to analyze data from key census-taking activities to determine their marginal costs and benefits, and use this information to inform decisions on developing more cost-effective methods.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The Census Bureau provided the following update as of July 22, 2013 -- this work is already underway and will be documented along with the fiscal year 2015 budget request, when the Bureau will deliver a more mature lifecycle cost estimate that will complement the FY 2015 Business Plan. In the fall of 2010, the Bureau prepared a Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM), which detailed the cost estimates for the 2020 Census based on 2010 Census key activities. The Bureau will mature this ROM work and documentation using this same method as well as linking the estimates by work breakdown structure (WBS), which represents how costs are collected and budgets apportioned. Detailing the costs by WBS and key activity will allow a level of granularity for comparability with earlier and future Decennial censuses. The 2020 Program is also committed to using lessons learned from the 2010 Evaluations Program, where applicable. The element of drawing information from 2010 Assessments will help to inform comparison of cost from the 2010 Census to the 2020 Census. The Bureau will complete the documentation of more mature cost estimates as well as the methodology in parallel with the formulation of the FY 2015 Budget request. The Bureau will make the documentation available to GAO at the same time that the budget request is released to Congress in February 2014. Target Completion Date: March 31, 2014

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's ability to control costs for the 2020 decennial and balance cost and quality, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Under Secretary of the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, to develop and document a method to compare costs in 2010 to those in future decennials, for example, around major activities or investments, to allow the Bureau to identify and address factors that contribute to cost increases.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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