2020 Census:

Actions Needed to Improve In-Field Address Canvassing Operation

GAO-18-414: Published: Jun 14, 2018. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2018.

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Contact:

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

 

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The success of the census depends in large part on the Census Bureau's ability to record every location where a person resides. An ever-changing housing inventory and "hidden" housing—such as a converted attic or shed that may not show up in records—make this huge task even more difficult.

As part of a test run, census workers went door-to-door to try to record each housing unit in selected areas in 3 states. We reviewed this effort and found the workers generally followed procedures but software problems sometimes kept them from transmitting data they collected.

We made 7 recommendations for the 2020 Census.

Does someone live here? A converted shed or attic can complicate the Census Bureau’s efforts to record every residence.

Photo of a large wooden shed with windows and doors.

Photo of a large wooden shed with windows and doors.

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 in-field address canvassing for the 2018 End-to-End Test. GAO found that field staff known as listers generally followed procedures when identifying and updating the address file; however, some address blocks were worked twice by different listers because the Bureau did not have procedures for reassigning work from one lister to another while listers work offline. Bureau officials told GAO that they plan to develop procedures to avoid duplication but these procedures have not been finalized. Duplicating work decreases efficiency and increases costs.

GAO also found differences between actual and projected data for workload, lister productivity, and hiring.

For the 2020 Census, the Bureau estimates it will have to verify 30 percent of addresses in the field. However, at the test sites, the actual workload ranged from 37 to 76 percent of addresses. Bureau officials told GAO the 30 percent was a nationwide average and not site specific; however, the Bureau could not provide documentation to support the 30 percent workload estimate.

At all three test sites listers were significantly more productive than expected possibly because a design change provided better quality address and map data in the field, according to the Bureau.

Hiring, however, lagged behind Bureau goals. For example, at the West Virginia site hiring was only at 60 percent of its goal. Bureau officials attributed the shortfall to a late start and low unemployment rates.

Workload and productivity affect the cost of address canvassing. The Bureau has taken some steps to evaluate factors affecting its estimates, but continuing to so would help the Bureau refine its assumptions to better manage the operation's cost and hiring.

Listers used laptops to connect to the Internet and download assignments. They worked offline and went door-to-door to update the address file, then reconnected to the Internet to transmit their completed assignments. Bureau officials told GAO that during the test 11 out of 330 laptops did not properly transmit address and map data collected for 25 blocks. Data were deleted on 7 laptops. Because the Bureau had known there was a problem with software used to transmit address data, it created an alert report to notify the Bureau staff if data were not properly transmitted. However, Bureau officials said that either responsible staff did not follow procedures to look at the alert reports or the reports were not triggered. The Bureau is working to fix the software problem and develop new alert reports, but has not yet determined and addressed why these procedures were not followed.

The Bureau's data management reporting system did not always provide accurate information because of a software issue. The system was supposed to pull data from several systems to create a set of real-time cost and progress reports for managers to use. Because the data were not accurate, Bureau staff had to rely on multiple systems to manage address canvassing. The Bureau agreed that not only is inaccurate data problematic, but that creating workarounds is inefficient. The Bureau is developing new requirements to ensure data are accurate but these requirements have not been finalized.

Why GAO Did This Study

The success of the decennial census depends in large part on the Bureau's ability to locate every household in the United States. To accomplish this monumental task, the Bureau must maintain accurate address and map information for every location where a person could reside. For the 2018 End-to-End Test, census workers known as listers went door-to-door to verify and update address lists and associated maps in selected areas of three test sites—Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, West Virginia; Pierce County, Washington; and Providence County, Rhode Island.

GAO was asked to review in-field address canvassing during the End-to-End Test. This report determines whether key address listing activities functioned as planned during the End-to-End Test and identifies any lessons learned that could inform pending decisions for the 2020 Census. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed key documents including test plans and training manuals, as well as workload, productivity and hiring data. At the three test sites, GAO observed listers conducting address canvassing.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making seven recommendations to the Department of Commerce and Bureau including to: (1) finalize procedures for reassigning work, (2) continue to evaluate workload and productivity data, (3) fix software problem, or determine and address why procedures were not followed, and (4) finalize report requirements to ensure data are accurate. 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

    Comments: The Department agreed with our recommendation. In its September 2018 action plan, the Bureau stated that (1) it has reviewed and will finalize criteria for determining the IFAC workload by the end of September 2018; (2) it will use data, such as results from Interactive Review results, housing type characteristics, and reliability of the U.S. Postal Service's Delivery Sequence File, through the remainder of 2018 to calculate and monitor the estimated IFAC workload, leading to identification of the final workload in spring 2019; (3) it is in the process of revising its estimates to average the 2010 Address Canvassing national productivity rates, for production and quality assurance, with the 2010 rates for the same geographic areas; (4) finalize IFAC workload estimates and revaluate in-field address canvassing (IFAC) Lister productivity rates; and (5) once the final workloads are available, the Bureau will study their distributions at local levels to see if any adjustments might be appropriate. The Census Bureau plans to implement any necessary changes to the productivity rates and update workload estimates by the end of March 2019. To fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau will need to complete its evaluation of the 2018 End-to-End Test, incorporate other information it has learned, and adjust its cost and planning assumptions accordingly.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau continues to evaluate and finalize workload estimates for in-field address canvassing as well as evaluates the factors that impacted productivity rates during the 2018 End-to-End Test and, if necessary, make changes to workload and productivity assumptions before the 2020 Census in-field address canvassing operation to help ensure that assumptions that impact staffing and the number of laptops to be procured are accurate. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agreed with our recommendation. In its September 2018 action plan, the Bureau stated that staff training will be updated to reinforce that census field managers must coordinate any reassignment of work with the appropriate supervisor and/or lister, in order to inform them that the relevant lister should stop all work on any block that is being reassigned. The Bureau plans to implement this procedural update by the end of December 2018.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau finalizes procedures for reassigning blocks to prevent the duplication of work. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agreed with our recommendation. In its September 2018 action plan, the Bureau stated that, along with the contractor responsible for providing the decennial enumeration device as a service, it created a "Wireless Connectivity Tiger Team" to (1) identify areas with limited or reduced national-provider cellular connectivity, and (2) identify mitigations to ensure adequate connectivity in those areas. The team plans to deploy regional carriers and wireless roaming capabilities in areas with reduced connectivity to enable adequate connectivity to facilitate the secure transmission of data. The action plan indicates that the Bureau plans to finalize its wireless connectivity plans by the end of March 2019. In order to fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau will need to complete its planned steps for identifying and addressing geographic areas with mobile connectivity issues, as well as ensure that users of the Bureau's mobile devices are informed of what they are to do when they are unable to connect with one of the contracted mobile carriers.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau finalizes backup instructions for the secure transmission of data when the Bureau's contracted mobile carriers are unavailable. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agreed with this recommendation. The Bureau's September 2018 action plan stated that the Bureau has directed the Regional Census Centers to develop plans to accommodate trainees in areas of low connectivity. This is to include locating local facilities where Internet connection is available and trainees can complete their online training. The plan suggested locations such as public libraries, job centers, and other community facilities. The Bureau plans to identify alternative training locations by March 2019. To fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau needs to have in place a credible and monitorable plan for ensuring adequate Internet access for all hirees during training.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau finalizes plans for alternate training locations in areas where Internet access is a barrier to completing training. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agreed with this recommendation. The Bureau's September 2018 action plan stated that developers of the software used by listers identified the root cause for the failures to transmit address and map data as related to specific communication protocols between the listers' software (LiMA), the mobile case management system, and the Field Operational Control System (FOCS). The Bureau plans to address this issue by March 2019.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau takes action to either fix the software problem that prevented the successful transmission of data, or if that cannot be fixed, then determine and address why procedures that alert reports be triggered and monitored were not followed. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agreed with this recommendation. The Bureau's September 2018 action plan stated that the Bureau is making a number of changes to improve the effectiveness of alerts, with the primary focus on managing the operation effectively and on identifying potentially inaccurate data and poor-performing listers. The Bureau plans to finish implementing these changes by March 2019. Fully implementing this recommendation will also require that the Bureau identify steps field supervisors should take to not spend inordinate time with alerts that are outdated.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau develops a plan to examine how to make census field supervisors (CFS) alerts more useful so that CFSs take appropriate action, including alerts a CFS determines are no longer valid because of timing differences. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department agreed with our recommendation. In its September 2018 action plan, the Bureau stated that based on reported observations during the 2018 End-To-End Census Test Address Canvassing operation and analysis of post-operation data, the Bureau identified reporting gaps and updated report requirements for the 2020 Census Address Canvassing, including more accurate and robust field cost data reports and a detailed quality control report. It reported that the Bureau plans to finalize all report requirements by the end of fiscal year 2018 and also plans to conduct robust user acceptance testing of all reports during the final testing phase before the 2020 Census Address Canvassing Operation during the second and third quarters of fiscal year 2019. In order to fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau will also need to ensure with testing that the data generated in those reports are accurate.

    Recommendation: Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau finalizes the Unified Tracking System requirements for address canvassing reporting to ensure that the data used by census managers who are responsible for monitoring real-time progress of address canvassing are accurate before the 2020 Census. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

 

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