2000 Census:

Contingency Planning Needed to Address Risks That Pose a Threat to a Successful Census

GGD-00-6: Published: Dec 14, 1999. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Year 2000 census, focusing on: (1) the need to boost the declining level of public participation in the census; and (2) the Census Bureau's need to collect timely and accurate data from nonrespondents.

GAO noted: (1) with less than 4 months remaining until Census Day, significant operational uncertainties continue to surround the Bureau's efforts to increase participation in the census and to collect timely and accurate field data from nonrespondents; (2) key to a successful census is the level of public participation, as measured by the questionnaire mail response rate; (3) however, the response rate has been declining since 1970, in part because of various demographic and attitudinal factors, such as more complex housing arrangements and public mistrust of government; (4) based on the 1998 dress rehearsal for the 2000 Census, the Bureau estimates a 61-percent mail response rate in 2000; (5) however, this goal may be optimistic because: (a) a key ingredient of the dress rehearsal mail response rate - a second "replacement" questionnaire - will not be used in 2000 because the Bureau is concerned that the questionnaire could confuse recipients, which could lead to duplicate responses, and (b) while the Bureau has instituted an extensive outreach and promotion effort to help it achieve its desired response rate, dress rehearsal results suggest the Bureau still has not resolved the long-standing challenge of motivating public participation in the census; (6) the Bureau's ability to complete its field operations on time without compromising data quality is another significant risk to a successful census; (7) past experience has shown that following up on nonresponding households is one of the most error-prone and costly of all census-taking activities, requiring the Bureau to fill about 860,000 positions and recruit up to 3.5 million people; (8) even if the Bureau achieves its 61-percent mail response rate objective, it will have a nonresponse follow-up workload of 46 million housing units; (9) to complete this workload in the 10-week time frame that the Bureau has allocated, it will need to close an average of 657,000 cases every day; (10) however, a lower-than-expected mail response rate, difficulties in recruiting a sufficient number of workers in a tight labor market, and a variety of other factors, could undermine the Bureau's efforts and result in higher costs and less accurate data; and (11) while the Bureau has established post-census coverage improvement procedures to improve the accuracy of the 2000 Census data, these procedures are similar to 1990 methods that had limited success.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its December 1999 report on the 2000 Census, to expand the census applicant pool, GAO recommended that the 106th Congress consider legislative actions to exempt former federal employees who received voluntary separation incentives (buyouts) from requirements to repay their buyout amount if they work on the census. At the request of the House Census Subcommittee, GAO drafted specific legislative language encompassing this recommendation. In February 2000, H.R. 3581, which included this provision, was referred to the House Committee on Government Reform for formal congressional consideration.

    Matter: To help expand the census applicant pool, Congress may wish to consider legislative actions to modify legal provisions that potentially discourage or prohibit specific groups of people from seeking census employment. Options could include exempting former federal employees who received voluntary separation incentives (buyouts) from requirements to repay their buyout amount if they work on the census.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its December 1999 report on the 2000 Census, to expand the census applicant pool, GAO recommended that the 106th Congress consider legislative actions to modify legal provisions that potentially discourage or prohibit specific groups of people from seeking census employment, including allowing active duty military personnel to hold temporary census employment. At the request of the House Census Subcommittee, GAO drafted specific legislative language encompassing this recommendation. In February 2000, H.R. 3581, which included this provision, was referred to the House Committee on Government Reform for formal congressional consideration.

    Matter: To help expand the census applicant pool, Congress may wish to consider legislative actions to modify legal provisions that potentially discourage or prohibit specific groups of people from seeking census employment. Options could include allowing active duty military personnel to hold temporary census employment.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its December 1999 report on the 2000 Census, to expand the census applicant pool, GAO recommended that the 106th Congress expedite legislation that would remove financial disincentives that could discourage recipients of Social Security, veterans healthcare, food stamp, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, as well as federal and military retires, from seeking census employment. In February 2000, H.R. 3581, which included these provisions, was referred to the House Committee on Government Reform for formal congressional consideration.

    Matter: To help expand the census applicant pool, Congress may wish to consider legislative actions to modify legal provisions that potentially discourage or prohibit specific groups of people from seeking census employment. Options could include expediting its consideration of H.R. 683, S. 752, S. 1588, which among other things, would remove financial disincentives that could discourage recipients of Social Security, veterans healthcare, food stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, as well as federal and military retirees from seeking census employment.

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its December 1999 report on the 2000 Census, to expand the census applicant pool, GAO recommended that the 106th Congress consider legislative actions to modify legal provisions that potentially discourage or prohibit specific groups of people from seeking census employment by including a statutory exemption from the appropriations restriction currently contained in section 605 of Public Law 106-58. Congress did not act on this recommendation for the 2000 Census.

    Matter: To help expand the census applicant pool, Congress may wish to consider legislative actions to modify legal provisions that potentially discourage or prohibit specific groups of people from seeking census employment. Options could include providing a statutory exemption form the appropriations restriction currently contained in section 605 of Public Law 106-58, for purposes of temporary census employment.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In February 2000, in response to GAO's recommendation that the Census Bureau develop a contingency plan of actions that it could take to address operational challenges that would result from a lower than expected questionnaire mail response rate in the 2000 Census, the Secretary of Commerce stated the Census Bureau must give priority to the execution of each component of the 2000 Census plan and not to the development of operational innovations or design changes.

    Recommendation: To help ensure an accurate and cost-effective census, the Director, Bureau of the Census should develop a contingency plan of actions the Bureau can take to address the operational challenges that would result from a questionnaire mail response rate that is lower-than-anticipated. At a minimum, the Bureau's plan should address the budgetary, scheduling, staffing, and other logistical implications of collecting data from a larger number of nonresponding households. The contingency plan should also include options and procedures to balance the pressure to meet census schedules with the need to limit the use of proxy data. The Bureau should share its plan with Congress and others to demonstrate its preparedness for collecting accurate data in the event of lower-than-expected levels of public cooperation with the census.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

 

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