2020 Census: Additional Steps Needed to Finalize Readiness for Peak Field Operations

GAO-19-140 Published: Dec 10, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 10, 2018.
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Fast Facts

In 2010, less than 2/3 of households responded to the U.S. Census Bureau's mailed questionnaire. When there's no response, a census worker follows up with a visit—a time-consuming and costly operation.

The Bureau recently ran a full Census test, which included the operations, systems, and procedures needed to count households that didn't respond. Workers followed up with more than 140,000 households in Rhode Island.

After reviewing plans, training, and part of the actual test, we recommended steps including making sure that field supervisors had the information and authority needed to help census workers with procedural questions.

A Census Worker Visits a Household to Collect Information

Photo of a Census worker approaching a house.

Photo of a Census worker approaching a house.

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What GAO Found

In preparation for the 2020 census, the Census Bureau (Bureau) set out to enumerate over 140,000 housing units during the 2018 Census Test at a site in Providence County, Rhode Island. The 2018 Census Test marked the Bureau's last chance to test enumeration procedures for peak field operations under census-like conditions before 2020. Implementation of this test identified the following concerns:

The Bureau experienced operational issues during implementation of the Non-Response Follow-Up (NRFU) as part of the 2018 Census Test. For example, the Bureau had not finalized procedures for data collection during late phases of NRFU (e.g., after multiple attempts to interview had been made) until after the work had already started. As a result, enumerators and their supervisors did not have standardized procedures during the test, which made it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the test procedures. GAO also observed a range of other NRFU implementation issues during the test, such as the Bureau's use of progress reporting that overstates the number of NRFU cases not needing any additional fieldwork and the Bureau having fewer of its enumerators work Saturdays, which can be among the most productive interview days. The Bureau is taking steps to assess and mitigate these and other issues that GAO identified.

The Bureau's field workforce was not fully prepared to face all of the enumeration challenges that arose during the test. For instance, the Bureau expects census field supervisors to provide front-line coaching to enumerators but did not screen these employees to ensure they had the needed skills. Moreover, it did not provide them with the authorities and information that would have helped them serve that role. As a result, we believe that supervisors did not have the casework expertise, information, or authority to help enumerators with procedural questions, and higher-level census field managers ended up providing direct support to enumerators.

While the Bureau provided extensive online and in-person training to enumerators prior to NRFU fieldwork for the 2018 Census Test, the Bureau lacked any standardized form of mid-operation training or guidance as new procedures were implemented. GAO observed that during the test some enumerators continued to have questions and were uncertain about procedures. Developing targeted, location-specific training could help ensure that, in 2020, enumerators receive the guidance they need to collect census data consistently and in accordance with NRFU procedures.

The Bureau has made progress addressing prior test implementation issues but still faces challenges. For example, the Bureau improved its collection of enumerator case notes, which reflect real-time knowledge gained during enumeration. However, enumerators did not always report cases using flags built in to their interviewing device that would benefit from supervisory review, such as for language barriers. Moreover, supervisors were not systematically analyzing case notes to identify cases not flagged properly. As a result, critical data on fieldwork challenges were not being communicated effectively to those who could analyze and use them.

Why GAO Did This Study

The cost of the decennial census has steadily increased over the past several decades, with self-response rates declining over the same period. The largest and costliest operation that the Bureau undertakes, NRFU is the Bureau's attempt to enumerate households not initially self-responding to the census.

GAO was asked to review NRFU implementation during the 2018 Census Test as well as the Bureau's overall readiness for peak field operations, which cover the actual enumeration of residents. This report examines (1) how peak field operations, including NRFU, were implemented during the test; and (2) the extent to which prior test implementation issues have been addressed. GAO reviewed test planning and training documentation, as well as production and payroll data. At the test site, GAO observed and interviewed enumerators, field supervisors, and managers conducting peak operations.

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GAO recommends that the Bureau (1) determine procedures for late-NRFU data collection; (2) align census field supervisor screening, authorities, and information flows; (3) prepare for targeted mid-operation training or guidance as needed; and (4) improve training on reporting cases that need supervisory attention and alternative ways to communicate these cases.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the Director of the Census Bureau determines in advance of Non-Response Follow-Up what the procedural changes will be for the last phases of its data collection and what the business rules will be for determining when to begin those phases, which cases to assign, and how to assign them. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In February 2019, the Bureau publicized its updated 2020 Census Operational Plan, which included a multi-phase NRFU Contact Strategy to attain complete data out of the persistently non-responsive cases. This strategy, initially drafted in part in response to our field observations from the 2018 Census Test, provides a roadmap and business rules for when to transition from a fully-optimized, automated case assignment process early in the Non-Response Follow-up operation to a more manual process with relaxed restrictions later in the operation. The strategy builds off of what was ultimately implemented during the test and emphasizes the importance of enumerators obtaining usable data from interview attempts. These changes should help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of field data collection efforts.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the Director of the Census Bureau identifies and implements changes to align census field supervisor screening, authorities, and information flows to allow greater use of the census field supervisor position to provide supervisory support to enumerators. (Recommendation 2)
In its February 2019 action plan, the Bureau indicated having updated the Census Field Supervisor hiring assessment to include questions on supervisory experience, in line with draft documentation provided near the end of our engagement. The Bureau also indicated that, by June 2019, it would communicate as part of supervisor training increased supervisory responsibilities and the need to more actively work with enumerators in answering casework questions. The Bureau informed us in August 2020 that the Bureau would not be altering the information flows for 2020 operations to ensure that census field supervisors receive the same guidance and procedural updates that managers within the area census office receive. In February 2023, officials noted that they would revisit this issue when planning later in the decade how field data collection will be managed for the 2030 Census, expecting to conclude related analysis by the end of September 2024. To fully implement this recommendation for the 2030 Census fieldwork, the Bureau's planned or other actions later in the decade will need to demonstrate how the census field supervisors will have the information they need to carry out their responsibilities to provide supervisory support to enumerators.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the Director of the Census Bureau enables area census offices to prepare targeted, mid-operation training or guidance as needed to address procedural changes or implementation issues encountered locally during Non-Response Follow-Up. (Recommendation 3)
In its February 2019 action plan, the Bureau indicated that it plans, by June 2019, to give area census offices (ACOs) the ability to distribute training and informational updates to their local workforces through the Operational Control System. As of January 2020, we were reviewing updated Bureau training documentation on planned mid-operation procedural changes. The Bureau informed us In April 2020 that area census offices would not be empowered during 2020 operations to deliver to their workforces standardized, mid-operation guidance that would be targeted to specific issues being observed locally in the field. Officials noted that they would revisit this issue when planning later in the decade how field data collection will be managed for the 2030 Census, and they expect their related plan to be completed by September 2024. To fully implement this recommendation for 2030 Census fieldwork, the Bureau will need to demonstrate later in the decade the ability of census offices to identify procedural or other implementation issues encountered locally and develop some form of actionable guidance disseminated systematically to its workforce in near-real time.
Department of Commerce
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the Director of the Census Bureau improves training and guidance to field staff on the intended use of case notes and flags, as well as on alternative ways to alert supervisors and managers when case characteristics are not readily captured by those flags. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
In its February 2019 action plan, the Bureau indicated that it plans, by June 2019, to refine its enumerator training to emphasize the importance of capturing key case information (independent of case flags) through the case notes. In December 2019, the Bureau shared updated training modules that in multiple instances emphasize to enumerators that, while they should review case notes and use case notes to document important case characteristics to aid future enumerator visits, they should not expect their supervisors to review the case notes. The training also clarified that enumerators should call their supervisors when confronted with dangerous situations. As a result of these steps, enumerators should have clearer expectations on how their case notes will be used and how to identify major issues during fieldwork.

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