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: According to an August 5, 2014 update from the Census Bureau, the Bureau has made revisions to the rough order of magnitude estimates and continue the efforts on defining methodologies for the trade-off analysis for the 2020 decennial. We are currently following up with Census officials and will provide additional information when they respond.

    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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to an August 5, 2014 update from the Census Bureau, the Bureau has made revisions to the rough order of magnitude estimates and continue the efforts on defining methodologies for the trade-off analysis for the 2020 decennial. We are currently following up with Census officials and will provide additional information when they respond.

    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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: According to an August 5, 2014 update from the Census Bureau, in FY 2013, the Bureau established a lifecycle budget and planning group to identify key decision points for the Census lifecycle. These decision points were added to the 2020 Census Schedule as milestones. In late January FY 2014, the Bureau revisited the Research and Testing (R&T) Phase milestones and deliverables as part our Program Integration Workshop. Revisions to the R&T Schedule will be baselined by March 2015. This work will reflect deliverables and decisions needed to make a preliminary design decision for the 2020 Census in September 2015. Further work to refine the outyear milestones will commence later this FY as part of our progressive elaboration of the 2020 Integrated Master Activity Schedule. We are currently following up with Census officials and will provide additional information when they respond.

    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: According to an August 5, 2014 update from the Census Bureau, each research and testing (R&T) project team is in the process of developing 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 Bureau plans to establish 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. We are currently following up with Census officials and will provide additional information when they respond.

    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

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: According to an August 5, 2014 update from the Census Bureau, the Bureau has made revisions to the rough order of magnitude estimates and continues the efforts on defining methodologies for the trade-off analysis.

    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

 

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