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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. During 2013, the Bureau reported on the agency's assessments of the 2010 communications campaign. The Bureau concluded that extra investment of advertising in certain markets increased awareness of the Census. During 2015, the Bureau conducted research and testing on activities to support planning for the 2020 communications campaign. The Bureau based its testing, in part, on evaluation results of paid media activities from the 2010 integrated communications program. In December 2018, the Bureau provided us with the study plans for its use of predictive modeling to support the 2020 Integrated Partnership and Communications Program. These plans describe the Bureau's use of data, including from the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey to help identify census tracts: (1) predicted to have lower levels of self-response; and (2) where self-response is expected to occur primarily through the Internet. In addition, these plans describe how these models will help guide decisions on allocation of marketing resources for 2020. Informed decision-making based on predictive modeling will allow the Bureau to determine geographic areas and demographic groups that will require more media attention and resources to encourage self-response during the 2020 Census.

    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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. In 2011, the Bureau reported on the agency's assessment of the partnership program. In September 2014, the Bureau's Path to the 2020 Census, identified the Partnership Program as one of the best methods for communicating the importance of response and states its intent to map out details about the Partnership Program in early 2016. As of March 2018, Bureau officials said they were developing coordination mechanisms between partnership and Area Census Office staff for the 2020 Census. For example, the Bureau updated a form it had used during the 2010 Census to track partnership outreach activities to help facilitate information sharing within the Bureau and said it plans to make additional updates. In March 2019, the Bureau informed us that it is assigning at least one partnership specialist to each census office manager to help address this recommendation. To fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau will need to take the necessary steps to operationalize this decision, such as documenting for partnership specialists and their area census office manager how they are expected to work together and other significant mechanisms that would increase effectiveness of coordination and communication between partnership and local field office staff.

    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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. In 2012, the Bureau issued an assessment of the partnership program that highlighted user problems with the partnership database. One of the report's recommendations was to ensure ease of data entry for users of the Integrated Partner Contact Database (IPCD). In 2014, the Bureau reported the agency is continuing to make modifications to the Integrated Partner Contact Database (IPCD) system and discussing options for improving the efficiency and usability of the IPCD. In March 2018 Bureau officials told us the interfaces on the database were still being refined. In December 2018 Bureau officials told us they were developing requirements for their Customer Relationship Management system to improve its user-friendliness, and as of March 2019 we are in communication with the Bureau about those steps.To fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau needs to demonstrate that improvements in any systems that partnership and other staff are to use to manage partnership contacts and related activities have addressed previous user problems.

    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

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. In 2011, the Bureau issued an assessment of the partnership program. One of the report's recommendations was to provide promotional materials that fit partner needs. During April 2014, the Bureau reported its staff in the field and communications directorates have plans to review assessments, lessons learned reports and debriefings with key staff, stakeholders, and partners to inform an effective strategy for the development, production, and delivery of promotional materials, including non-English language materials, for the 2020 Census. As of March 2019, Bureau officials informed us that they were in the middle of ramping up their hiring of partnership staff and provided to us copies of partnership and outreach materials already developed. To fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau will need to demonstrate that its partnership staff, when hired, are informed of what materials they can expect to receive in support of their efforts--including what languages and formats--and when they will be receiving them.

    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

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. In May 2012 the Bureau reported on its assessment of the Be Counted/Questionnaire Assistance Center program. The assessment included information on the number of individuals counted and number of locations established but did not identify response rates or other use patterns by respondents in hard-to enumerate groups. In April 2013, the Bureau reported on its assessment of coverage measurement issues related to hard-to-enumerate populations, but that reporting did not address the use of Be Counted/QAC locations. In December 2018, Bureau officials informed us that the 2020 Census would not be relying on Be Counted forms, QACs, and instead would rely on local partners to determine where best to conduct any special outreach efforts or events. As such, we consider this recommendation closed and not implemented.

    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

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. In September 2012, the Bureau issued its assessment of the Service Based Enumeration Program. The assessment reported on the number of individuals counted and the complexities of this special enumeration activity. The assessment did not address the Bureau's approach to staffing this special enumeration activity. In its 2020 Census Operational Plan, issued in October 2017, the Bureau provided a high level overview of reengineered field operations plans but did not provide details on special enumeration efforts. In April 2018, the Bureau provided us with its planned staffing ratios for its Service-Based Enumeration activity for the 2020 Census in comparison to those used in the 2010 Census, as well as results of its 2016 Census Test of SBE activity. In order to fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau needs to demonstrate that its planning for how it will determine staffing levels for SBE takes into account the factors that led to inefficient staffing allocation previously. As of March 2019, we are in communication with Bureau staff about what steps it may yet take in response to this recommendation.

    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

  7. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The Department generally agreed with this recommendation. In 2012, the Bureau reported on assessments of many 2010 special enumeration activities such as the Service-Based Enumeration and the Be Counted/Questionnaire Assistance Center Programs. These assessments revealed the number of persons counted and spending for the special enumeration activities. Separately, the Bureau issued results of the 2010 Census Coverage Measurement Program that described the level of coverage of various hard-to-enumerate populations generally without attributing coverage to specific enumeration activities. Since 2015, the Bureau has issued annual updates of its 2020 Census Operational Plans, which have not provided details of plans for various special enumeration activities. In April 2017 Bureau officials provided us with evaluation results of its 2010 communication efforts and other documents related to ongoing efforts to reduce errors in the census. To fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau needs to demonstrate how it is relying on data about how various special enumeration activities of historically hard-to-enumerate groups contributed to census coverage in 2010 to inform its design for the 2020 Census. As of March 2019, we are in communication with Bureau officials about steps they are taking to implement this recommendation.

    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

 

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