2000 Census:

Best Practices and Lessons Learned for More Cost-Effective Nonresponse Follow-up

GAO-02-196: Published: Feb 11, 2002. Publicly Released: Feb 11, 2002.

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Nonresponse follow-up--in which Census Bureau enumerators go door-to-door to count individuals who have not mailed back their questionnaires--was the most costly and labor intensive of all 2000 Census operations. According to Bureau data, labor, mileage, and administrative costs totaled $1.4 billion, or 22 percent of the $6.5 billion allocated for the 2000 Census. Several practices were critical to the Bureau's timely competition of nonresponse follow-up. The Bureau (1) had an aggressive outreach and promotion campaign, simplified questionnaire, and other efforts to boost the mail response rate and thus reduce the Bureau's nonresponse follow-up workload; (2) used a flexible human capital strategy that enabled it to meet its national recruiting and hiring goals and position enumerators where they were most needed; (3) called on local census offices to identify local enumeration challenges, such as locked apartment buildings and gated communities, and to develop action plans to address them; and (4) applied ambitious interim "stretch" goals that encouraged local census offices to finish 80 percent of their nonresponse follow-up workload within the first four weeks and be completely finished by the end of the eighth week, as opposed to the ten-week time frame specified in the Bureau's master schedule. Although these initiatives were key to meeting tight time frames for nonresponse follow-ups, the Bureau's experience in implementing them highlights challenges for the next census in 2010. First, maintaining the response rate is becoming increasingly expensive. Second, public participation in the census remains problematic. Third, the address lists used for nonresponse follow-up did not always contain the latest available information because the Bureau found it was infeasible to remove many late-responding households. Fourth, the Bureau's stretch goals appeared to produce mixed results. Finally, there are questions about how reinterview procedures aimed at detecting enumerator fraud and other quality problems were implemented.

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As the bureau plans for the next national head count in 2010, the Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the bureau, to help ensure that nonresponse follow-up is conducted as cost effectively as possible, ensure that the bureau's procedures and incentives for the timely completion of nonresponse follow-up emphasize the collection of quality data and proper enumeration techniques as much as speed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The bureau concurred with this recommendation, noting that, for 2010, it plans to have staff in the local census offices dedicated to quality assurance for all operations. The staff would be responsible for ensuring that quality standards are met and that quality is not sacrificed to complete operations quickly. The Census Bureau has formed a team to address the development of quality assurance plans as the design of the 2010 Census progresses. This team will specifically address the development of quality assurance plans for 2004 Census Test operations/activities.

    Recommendation: As the bureau plans for the next national head count in 2010, the Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the bureau, to help ensure that nonresponse follow-up is conducted as cost effectively as possible, develop and test procedural and technological options that have the potential to generate a more and up-to-date address list and set maps for nonresponse follow-up. As part of this effort, the bureau should explore how to refresh the nonresponse follow-up address list more frequently, even as nonresponse follow-up is underway, so that enumerators would not have to make costly visits to late-responding households. The bureau also needs to examine the methods it uses in activities that precede nonresponse follow-up to develop and update the nonresponse address list and associated maps. Specifically, the bureau should determine the extent to which updates that should have been made were properly reflected in the nonresponse follow-up list and maps, and take appropriate corrective actions to address any problems it identifies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with our recommendation, the Bureau has taken steps to improve the accuracy of its address list and maps. Moreover, its planned use of hand-held enumeration devices will allow the Census Bureau to update enumerators' assignments on a daily basis. This in turn will help prevent enumerators from visiting households that have already returned their census questionnaires. Moreover, the devices have a mapping function, which will enable the Census Bureau to provide updated map information to enumerators more quickly and accurately.

    Recommendation: As the bureau plans for the next national head count in 2010, the Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the bureau, to help ensure that nonresponse follow-up is conducted as cost effectively as possible, assess the extent practicable, why people who were aware of the census did not return their census questionnaires and develop appropriate marketing countermeasures to bridge the gap between their awareness of the census on the one hand, and their motivation to respond on the other.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with this recommendation, the Bureau completed an evaluation of the Census 2000 partnership and marketing program in September 2003 and an evaluation of response rates and behavior analysis in March 2004. The studies developed data on what beliefs about the census are associated with the likelihood of returning a questionnaire and can be influenced by marketing and communication as well as various census response options and their impact on participation.

    Recommendation: As the bureau plans for the next national head count in 2010, the Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the bureau, to help ensure that nonresponse follow-up is conducted as cost effectively as possible, identify and refine lessons learned from the 2000 nonresponse follow-up operation and apply them to the bureau's plans for the 2010 Census.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with this recommendation, the bureau developed an action plan and has taken such steps as conducting several debriefing sessions with field, regional and HQ management and identified and documented best practices and lessons learned. In addition, the bureau reported that it has conducted inter-divisional integration reviews and assessments on nonresponse follow-up for use in future planning.

    Recommendation: As the bureau plans for the next national head count in 2010, the Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the bureau, to help ensure that nonresponse follow-up is conducted as cost effectively as possible, examine the bureau's reinterview procedures--particularly as they relate to the discretion given to local census officials--to help ensure that the procedures are sufficient for consistently and reliably detecting potential problems throughout the duration of enumerators' employment on nonresponse follow-up.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The bureau concurred with this recommendation and is redesigning its re-interview operation to better ensure that procedures are being followed consistently and will be capable of detecting enumerator problems. Specifically, the bureau plans to automate checks of enumerators' work as part of its effort to use mobile computing devices for enumeration. The bureau believes that automated checks will provide timely and consistent checks of enumerators' work. The bureau is to test the revised re-interview procedures in the 2004 Census Test and throughout the decade.

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