2020 CENSUS:

Additional Actions Could Strengthen Field Data Collection Efforts

GAO-17-191: Published: Jan 26, 2017. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 2017.

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If you don't return your Census form, a Census taker will interview you in person using a mobile device.

To prepare for the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau tested how well this interview process works. Our review of their 2016 tests found many non-interviews—cases where no data or insufficient data were collected. The Bureau is researching potential causes.

We also found some cases where better procedures or more training may improve the process. For example, Census takers could not access recently closed incomplete cases on their mobile devices—and were therefore unable to interview a household when people returned home.

A Non-response Follow-Up Visit

A census worker in a doorway using a mobile device to collect data from a household member

A census worker in a doorway using a mobile device to collect data from a household member

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Robert Goldenkoff
(202) 512-2757
goldenkoffr@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Census Bureau (Bureau) recently completed its 2016 Census Test in Los Angeles County, California, and Harris County, Texas. One primary focus of the test was to assess the methodology for non-response follow-up (NRFU), where enumerators personally visit households that do not self-respond to the census. GAO found that during the 2016 Census Test, NRFU generally proceeded according to the Bureau's operational plan. However, data at both test sites indicate that the Bureau experienced a large number of non-interviews. Non-interviews are cases where either no data or insufficient data are collected. Bureau officials are not certain why there were so many non-interviews for the 2016 Census Test and are researching potential causes. Going forward, it will be important for the Bureau to better understand the factors that contributed to the non-interview rate because of its relationship to the cost and quality of the census.

GAO also found that refining certain enumeration procedures and training enumerators better could produce additional efficiencies by enabling the Bureau to be more responsive to situations enumerators encounter on the ground. For example, enumerators, by design, were unable to access on the mobile device recently closed, incomplete cases. Bureau officials acknowledged that closing cases in this fashion represented a missed opportunity and plan to test greater flexibilities as part of the 2018 End-to-End Test. Programming some flexibility into the mobile device—if accompanied with adequate training on how and when to use it—should permit enumerators to complete some interviews and reduce the cost of follow-up attempts. Further, enumerators did not always understand procedures for visiting property managers in multi-unit buildings. Specifically, the 2016 Census Test demonstrated that vacant units could quickly be removed from the NRFU workload where a property manager was readily available to provide that information; however, in other cases the procedures confused enumerators and they did not understand how to proceed. Without the knowledge of which units were vacant, enumerators may have unnecessarily visited some vacant units and thereby increased the cost of NRFU.

During GAO's field visits, GAO encountered several instances where enumerators learned that returning at a specific time on a later date would improve their chance of obtaining an interview from either a household respondent or a property manager. However, the Bureau's 2016 Census Test and automated case management system did not have an efficient way to leverage that information. Attempting contact at non-responding households at times respondents are expected to be available increases the completion rate and reduces the need to return.

Why GAO Did This Study

With a life-cycle cost of about $12.3 billion, the 2010 Census was the most expensive enumeration in U.S. history. To help control costs and maintain accuracy, the 2020 Census design includes new procedures and technology that have not been used extensively in earlier decennials, if at all. While these innovations show promise for a more cost-effective head count, they also introduce risks. As a result, it will be important to thoroughly test the operations planned for 2020.

The objective of this report is to assess key NRFU operations performed during the 2016 Census Test to identify any lessons learned that could have a potential impact on pending design decisions for the 2020 Census. To assess NRFU operations GAO visited both test locations and observed enumerators conducting NRFU interviews, and reviewed relevant documents including the test plan and enumerator training manuals.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends the Secretary of Commerce direct the Bureau to: (1) determine causes for non-interviews, and revise and test what, if any, changes need to be made to operational procedures and training; (2) revise and test procedures and training on accessing closed cases, (3) revise and test procedures and training for initial property manager visits; and (4) revise and test procedures and training for how to use enumerator-collected data on the best time or day to conduct an interview. The Department of Commerce agreed with GAO's recommendations, and the Bureau provided technical comments that were incorporated, as appropriate.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: Commerce agreed with this recommendation. In the Bureau's March 2017 action plan, it reported that analysis of the 2016 Census Test data is underway and that the 2016 Census Test experiences and the ongoing 2016 Census Test data analysis will inform the Bureau's evolution of operational methods and development of revised training content. According to the Census Bureau the 2016 Census Test evaluation is in draft, and anticipates changes will be made to the non-response follow-up operation in the 2018 End-to-End Test in order to complete more interviews.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs should direct the Census Bureau to determine the cause(s) for non-interviews experienced during the non-response follow-up operation and revise and test what, if any, changes need to be made to operational procedures, training, or both, including making contact with proxy respondents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Commerce agreed with this recommendation. In the Bureau's March 2017 action plan, it reported that the Bureau had identified enhancements to methods to address this recommendation and would consider how procedures can provide flexibility, and how the enumerator training can evolve to communicate the availability of this flexibility, and when the capability should be leveraged. It reported that how the software solutions will reflect these enhancements will inform the development of the procedures and training used by enumerators for the 2018 Census End-to-End Census Test. It reported a target completion of December 2018 following completion and analyses of the nonresponse follow-up operation for the 2018 End-to-End Census Test. In January 2018, the Bureau told us they had developed new procedures for the 2018 End-to-End Test that will allow the enumerator to open closed cases and would provide us with those procedures once finalized. When we receive those procedures we will review them and determine whether we can close this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs should direct the Census Bureau to revise and test operational procedures for accessing incomplete closed cases and revise and test training material to reflect when this flexibility to access incomplete closed cases should be used by the enumerator.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Commerce agreed with this recommendation. In the Bureau's March 2017 action plan, it reported that based on its 2016 Census Test experiences, it had identified modifications to the system capabilities and procedures for initial multiunit manager visits and that it would implement and further study these changes in future tests, including the 2018 End-to-End Census Test. It reported a target completion in December 2018, following completion and analyses of the nonresponse follow-up operation for the 2018 End-to-End Census Test following completion and analyses of the nonresponse follow-up (NRFU) operation for the 2018 End-to-End Census Test. In January 2018, Bureau officials told us they were developing new procedures for multi-unit manager visits. When we receive those procedures we will review them and determine whether this recommendation can be closed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs should direct the Census Bureau to revise and test operational procedures and relevant training materials for initial property manager visits to ensure procedures and training material are communicated to and understood by enumerators and their supervisors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Commerce agreed with this recommendation. In the Bureau's March 2017 action plan, it reported that as the Census Bureau develops enhancements to the procedures and training for enumerators, it will reflect on what it has learned from 2016 Census Test experiences as well as from recommendations such as this. It reported a target completion of December 2018, following completion and analyses of the nonresponse follow-up operation for the 2018 End-to-End Census Test. In January 2018, Bureau officials told us that leveraging enumerator collected information on the best time to conduct an interview would not be a part of questionnaire design's functionality for 2020 and will most likely rely on the system optimizer to determine the best time to contact a household. Bureau officials indicated they may push this recommendation out to 2030.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs should direct the Census Bureau to revise and test procedures on how to better leverage enumerator-collected information on the best time or day to conduct interviews, and ensure enumerators are properly trained on these procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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