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2020 Census: Actions Needed to Address Challenges to Enumerating Hard-to-Count Groups

GAO-18-599 Published: Jul 26, 2018. Publicly Released: Aug 27, 2018.
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Fast Facts

For the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau is planning to increase its efforts to include hard-to-count groups, such as minorities, renters, and young children. It is adding more language choices for its materials, hiring more people for outreach in local communities, and hiring earlier.

Still, the Bureau faces challenges such as integrating its outreach and promotion activities across its many different operations, and a tighter labor market that could make hiring people with key skills more difficult.

We recommended the Bureau take steps to ensure changes in its efforts are incorporated across its operations, and collect detailed hiring data.

This photo shows a woman filling out a Census form.

This photo shows a woman filling out a Census form.

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What GAO Found

The Census Bureau's (Bureau) plans for enumerating groups considered hard-to-count, such as minorities, renters, and young children, in the 2020 Census includes the use of both traditional and enhanced initiatives. For example, the Bureau plans to continue using certain outreach efforts used in 2010, such as a communications campaign with paid advertising, partnerships with local organizations, and targeted outreach to immigrant and faith-based organizations. The Bureau also plans enhancements to its outreach efforts compared to 2010. For example, to help address the undercount of young children, the Bureau revised the census questionnaire and instructions to enumerators to more explicitly include grandchildren in counts. Other planned changes include:

Expanded languages: The Bureau plans to offer more non-English language response options and instructional materials than for 2010.

More partnership specialists: The Bureau plans to hire nearly twice as many partnership specialists as it had planned for the 2010 Census to recruit partner organizations in local communities.

Earlier partnership hiring: The Bureau started hiring a small number of partnership staff in October 2015—2 years earlier than it did for 2010.

While efforts have been made, enumerating hard-to-count persons in 2020 will not be easy. Aside from the inherent difficulties of counting such individuals, the Bureau faces certain management challenges related to its hard-to-count efforts.

First, the Bureau's hard-to-count efforts are distributed across over one third of its 35 operations supporting the 2020 Census. And while decentralized operations can provide flexibility, to enhance visibility over these hard-to-count efforts, the Bureau recently developed a draft operational document. However, the Bureau will continue to face challenges in ensuring its hard-to-count efforts integrate with each other. For example, some of the detailed plans for 10 of the hard-to-count efforts were released in 2016 and are awaiting updates, while 4 plans have yet to be released. With less than 2 years until Census Day (April 1, 2020), there is little room for delay. Therefore, to ensure that emerging plans related to the hard-to-count efforts integrate with existing plans, Bureau management will need to continue its focus on control of the changes in hard-to-count efforts moving forward.

Second, the Bureau faces a challenge of a tighter labor market than existed prior to 2010 that could potentially create shortfalls or delays in its hiring of partnership staff who are needed to reach small and hard-to-count communities. In early hiring for 2020, Bureau officials reported smaller than expected applicant pools, declined offers, and turnover. Although it has plans to identify critical skills for 2020 and for tailored recruiting, collecting data on its hiring efforts will also be important. Currently, the Bureau lacks data from its 2010 Census that could have helped inform its partnership-staff hiring efforts for 2020.

Why GAO Did This Study

A goal for the 2020 Census is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place. Achieving a complete and accurate census is becoming an increasingly complex task, in part because the nation's population is growing larger, more diverse, and more reluctant to participate. When the census misses a person who should have been included, it results in an undercount. Historically, certain sociodemographic groups have been undercounted in the census, which is particularly problematic given the many uses of census data.

GAO was asked to review the Bureau's plans for enumerating hard-to-count groups in the 2020 Census. This report examines (1) the Bureau's plans for improving the enumeration of the hard-to-count in 2020, and how that compares with 2010; and (2) the challenges the Bureau faces in improving the enumeration of the hard-to-count in 2020. GAO reviewed Bureau planning, budget, operational, and evaluation documents as well as documents of the hard-to-count related working groups of the Bureau's National Advisory Committee; and interviewed Bureau officials.


GAO recommends that the Bureau take steps to ensure that forthcoming changes and decisions on its hard-to-count related efforts are integrated with other operational efforts and that it collects data on its 2020 partnership hiring efforts.

The Department of Commerce agreed with GAO's recommendations, and the Bureau provided technical comments that were incorporated, as appropriate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
U.S. Census Bureau
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau takes steps to ensure that forthcoming changes and decisions on hard-to-count related efforts are integrated with other hard-to-count related efforts across the Bureau's decentralized operations. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The Department agreed with our recommendation. In its October 26, 2018 action plan, the Census Bureau stated that it plans to establish an internal hard-to-count population working group to coordinate efforts across all 2020 Census operations by the first quarter in 2019. As of July 2019, we await evidence of results from this working group. In order to fully implement this recommendation, the Bureau will need to align this as well as its yet-to-be planned activity to improve enumeration of hard-to-count groups with other already-planned 2020 Census activity, ensuring that dependencies and possible opportunities or undesired cross-effects are identified and either leveraged or mitigated accordingly. As of January 2020, the Bureau provided us with evidence of ongoing multi-team discussions integrating perspectives on decisions and planning for hard-to-count enumeration activities. The Bureau's use of such an integrated approach will help ensure that the Bureau's otherwise decentralized efforts to address hard-to-count challenges will be more effective.
U.S. Census Bureau The Secretary of Commerce should ensure the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau takes steps to ensure for the purposes of evaluation and future planning that information is recorded and available on partnership hiring numbers, dates, positions filled, and in support of what part of the 2020 Census. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
The Department agreed with our recommendation. In its October 26, 2018 action plan, the Census Bureau stated that (1) it had reviewed workforce hiring plans for its partnership-related positions; (2) it would start collecting data for all partnership positions hired starting in 2019; and (3) it would prepare a final report with historical data after the 2020 Census partnership activities are completed for release by the second quarter of 2021. In May 2019, the Bureau provided documentation of its tracking and recording of the number of partnership staff hired and onboard to support the 2020 Census, including by location, and has continued providing updates on a weekly basis. Having these data readily available will better position the Bureau to evaluate the effectiveness of its hiring strategy and tradeoffs in alternative approaches, to learn lessons from the 2020 implementation, and to optimize related staffing strategies in the future. Based on the Bureau's ongoing tracking and recording of its 2020 partnership hiring and its plan to issue a final report after completion of the 2020 Census, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

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