Decennial Census:

Methods for Collecting and Reporting Data on the Homeless and Others without Conventional Housing Need Refinement

GAO-03-227: Published: Jan 17, 2003. Publicly Released: Feb 19, 2003.

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The Bureau of the Census partnered with local governments, advocacy groups, and other organizations to help it enumerate people without conventional housing. Counting this population--which includes shelter residents and the homeless--has been a longstanding challenge for the Bureau. A number of organizations put substantial resources into an operation the Bureau called Service-Based Enumeration. In return, some expected the Bureau to provide data that would help them plan and deliver employment, health, and other services. However, the Bureau did not release the data as planned, which raised questions about the Bureau's decision-making on data quality issues. In response to a congressional request, GAO examined the Bureau's decision-making process behind its change in plans.

The Bureau's original plan for releasing Service-Based Enumeration data was outlined in an April 1999 internal memorandum that called for the separate release of data on people counted at "emergency and transitional shelters." The Bureau planned to combine other components of Service-Based Enumeration, including people counted at soup kitchens, regularly scheduled mobile food vans, and certain outdoor locations, into a single category. Driving the Bureau's decision was its experience during the 1990 Census when it released separate counts of people found at shelters, on the street, and similar locations that proved to be incomplete. The Bureau also tried to ensure that the Service-Based Enumeration figures could not be used as a "homeless" count, because it was not designed to provide a specific count of the homeless. Instead, the operation was part of a larger effort to count people without conventional housing. In January 2001, the Bureau changed its earlier decision because a statistical procedure used to refine the emergency and transitional shelter data proved to be unreliable, which lowered the quality of the data. In response, the Bureau combined the shelter data with a category called "other non-institutional group quarters," a category that also includes data on people enumerated in several other group locations such as facilities for victims of natural disasters. In the fall of 2001, the Bureau produced a heavily qualified special report on the shelter data. A key cause of the Bureau's shifting position on reporting these data appears to be its lack of well documented, transparent, clearly defined, and consistently applied guidelines on the minimum quality necessary for releasing data. Had these guidelines been in place at the time of the census, the Bureau could have been better positioned to make an objective decision on releasing these figures. Additionally, the Bureau could have used the guidance to explain to data users the reasons for the decision, eliminating any appearance of censorship and arbitrariness. Because the Bureau did not always adequately communicate its plans for releasing the data, expectation gaps developed between the Bureau and entities that helped with Service-Based Enumeration.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau agreed with the recommendation. The Bureau has initiated development of research and testing plans for enumeration of persons without conventional housing in the 2010 decennial census. The Bureau noted that, although it is not possible to replicate fully the environment and conditions of an actual census, it will use site tests and special-purpose tests to approximate these conditions. It will conduct site tests in 2004, 2006 and a dress rehearsal in 2008. Plans for research on and testing of enumeration methods for persons without conventional housing are still being developed. The development of the enumeration methods for this segment of the population will rely on a combination of focus groups, special purpose tests, and the 2006 site test. The Census Bureau will provide regular updates about these activities to GAO.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the 2010 Census will provide public data users with more complete, accurate, and useful information on the segment of the population without conventional housing, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of the Bureau of the Census to ensure that all procedures for enumerating and estimating segments of the population without conventional housing are properly tested and evaluated under conditions as similar to the census as possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Census Bureau concurred with the recommendation. In response, the Associate Director for Methodology and Standards, the Chairperson of the Census Bureau's Methodology and Standards Council, formed the Inter-Directorate Quality Framework Standards Working Group to examine this issue and develop/codify guidelines as recommended. The Working Group's guidelines, "Dissemination of Census and Survey Data Products", became effective on May 19, 2005.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the 2010 Census will provide public data users with more complete, accurate, and useful information on the segment of the population without conventional housing, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of the Bureau of the Census to develop agencywide guidelines for Bureau decisions on the level of quality needed to release data to the public, how to characterize any limitations in the data, and when it is acceptable to suppress the data for reasons other than protecting the confidentiality of respondents; and ensure that these guidelines are documented, transparent, clearly defined, and consistently applied.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau agreed with the recommendation. It developed plans for outreach and communication efforts to involve the relevant public not only in the development of enumeration methods, but also in plans for tabulation and release of counts of persons without conventional housing. The Bureau will work extensively with advocates and service providers throughout the decade to review evaluations from the 2000 census and begin developing the research and testing efforts for the 2010 census.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the 2010 Census will provide public data users with more complete, accurate, and useful information on the segment of the population without conventional housing, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of the Bureau of the Census to ensure that the Bureau's plans for releasing data are clearly and consistently communicated with the public.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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