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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau released an Operational Plan for the 2020 Census in November 2015 that summarizes the potential lifecycle cost savings in each of several key innovation areas of its proposed redesign, compared to the estimated cost of a 2020 Census relying on traditional methods. The areas of innovation include ...reengineering address canvassing, optimizing self response to the census, increasing use of administrative records and third party data, and reengineering field operations. Additional detail we were able to obtain from the Bureau also demonstrated the specific changes in key assumptions within the Bureau's underlying cost model that led to the calculated savings in each of these areas. This comparison by the Bureau, and, specifically, the documentation of the underlying assumptions as they relate to the specific design decisions the Bureau is making, better positions the Bureau to understand where it can control cost.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The Bureau released an Operational Plan for the 2020 Census in November 2015 that summarizes the potential lifecycle cost savings in each of several key innovation areas of its proposed redesign, compared to the estimated cost of a 2020 Census relying on traditional methods. The areas of innovation include reengineering address canvassing, optimizing self response to the census, increasing use of administrative records and third party data, and reengineering field operations. Additional detail we were able to obtain from the Bureau also demonstrated the specific changes in key assumptions within the Bureau's underlying cost model that led to the calculated savings in each of these areas. This comparison by the Bureau, and, specifically, the documentation of the underlying assumptions as they relate to the specific design decisions the Bureau is making, better positions the Bureau to understand where it can control cost.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2015 the Bureau released an operational plan for the 2020 Census that, according to the Bureau, marks a transition between the Bureau's "research and testing" and "operational development" phases of the 2020 Census life cycle. The operational plan describes the Bureau's planned design based on decisions made thus far and lays out over one hundred additional decisions needing made--and when. Bureau officials state that the dates for the additional decisions needed before the Bureau's scheduled 2018 End-to-End Test are reflected in the Bureau's central master activity schedule. Identifying these decision points will help the Bureau focus its efforts and monitor its progress toward the 2020 Census. In addition, in January 2016 the Bureau announced that it had combined two executive-level bodies into one more streamlined decision-making body. (It combined the previous 2020 Census Decennial Leadership Group with the 2020 Census Program Management Governing Board.) This streamlining has the potential to increase efficiency and transparency of key decisions for the 2020 Census.

    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: Commerce neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. According to the Census Bureau, each research and testing (R&T) project team was to 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 were sound and provide decision makers with reliable findings, the Bureau planned to establish internal Scientific and Methodological Review Panels. These panels were to evaluate research designs, provide critical feedback and guidance to the research teams and assess the validity of any findings, conclusions and recommendations. In September 2017 the Bureau released an operational plan that described at a high level how cost was a consideration and how individual operations influenced overall costs, but it did not lay out the criteria to be used for choosing among design alternatives. As of July 2018, we continue to follow up with Census officials to obtain evidence that cost is being used as an evaluation criterion.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: Commerce neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. On May 4, 2018, in response to GAO's recommendation, Bureau officials provided GAO with their Cost Estimation and Analysis Process document as well as associated policies and guidance. Our subsequent analysis found that the Bureau had established reliable guidance, processes, and policies for developing cost estimates and managing the cost estimation process. The documents provided establish roles and responsibilities for oversight and approval of cost estimation processes, provide a detailed description of the steps taken to produce a high quality cost estimate, and clarify the process for updating the cost estimate and associated documents over the life of a project. Such guidance should result in reliable cost estimates that management can use for making informed decisions.

    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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