2010 Census:

Cost and Design Issues Need to Be Addressed Soon

GAO-04-37: Published: Jan 15, 2004. Publicly Released: Jan 28, 2004.

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The key to a successful census is meticulous planning as it helps ensure greater cost-effectiveness. However, the 2000 and previous censuses have been marked by poor planning, which unnecessarily raised the costs and risks of those efforts. GAO was asked to (1) review the U.S. Census Bureau's (Bureau) current plans for 2010 and whether they might address shortcomings of the 2000 Census, (2) analyze the Bureau's cost estimates, and (3) review the rigor of the Bureau's 2010 planning process.

While preparations for the 2010 Census appear to be further along compared to a similar point prior to the 2000 Census, cost and design information had to be pieced together from various documents. The Bureau's plans also lack a substantial amount of supporting analysis, budgetary transparency, and other information that made it difficult to verify the Bureau's assertions concerning the costs and benefits of its proposed approach. Further, unlike in previous censuses, the Bureau does not intend to develop coverage measurement procedures that would allow it to adjust census data for certain purposes. Although its experience in 2000 shows that its coverage measurement methodology needs improvement, GAO believes the Bureau should have researched alternative approaches more thoroughly and disclosed the results of its research before making a decision. In designing the 2010 Census, the Bureau hoped to address several shortcomings of the 2000 enumeration, namely to (1) increase the relevance and timeliness of data, (2) reduce operational risk, (3) increase coverage and accuracy, and (4) contain costs. To achieve these goals, three components--all new operations--are key to the Bureau's plans for 2010. They include enhancing procedures for building the census address list and associated maps, replacing the census long-form questionnaire with a more frequent sample survey, and conducting a short-form-only census. The Bureau's approach has the potential to achieve the first three goals, but reducing operational risk could prove to be more difficult as each of the three components actually introduces new risks. The Bureau will also be challenged to control the cost of the 2010 Census, now estimated at over $11 billion. The current budget reporting process masks the long-term costs of the census, most of which will be incurred in 2010; making it difficult for Congress to monitor the Bureau's planned expenditures. Certain actions by the Office of Management and Budget could produce greater fiscal transparency, and thus help inform congressional deliberations on how to best balance the need for an accurate census, with the need to ensure a reasonable cost for this endeavor.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In light of the need for greater budgetary transparency and more information on the Bureau's underlying budgetary assumptions, we recommended that the Bureau annually update its life-cycle cost estimates. In response, the Bureau noted in its life cycle cost document dated September 2005, that it would publish the cost estimates on an annual basis for the duration of the decennial cycle, through 2013.

    Recommendation: To enhance the performance and accountability of the Bureau of the Census, as well as to help convince Congress and other stakeholders that the Bureau has chosen an optimum design and will manage operations and control costs effectively, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve the rigor of its planning process by developing an operational plan that consolidates budget, methodological, and other relevant information about the 2010 Census into a single, comprehensive project plan that would be updated as needed. Individual elements could include annually updated life cycle cost estimates, including a sensitivity analysis, and an explanation of significant changes in the assumptions on which these costs are based.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In order to ensure the performance and accountability of the 2010 census, we recommended that the Bureau could develop an operational plan that includes detailed milestone estimates that identify all significant interrelationships. On June 2, 2008, the Bureau provided us with its integrated schedule, which includes a detailed activity-level schedule as well as a higher-level schedule of key milestones. The detailed schedule, called the "Census Baseline Schedule," describes the significant interrelationships between each item, such as noting the "predecessor" and "successor" of each activity, and identifies the start and end dates of each activity. The key milestones document lists 164 higher-level activities that must be completed during the 2010 Census.

    Recommendation: To enhance the performance and accountability of the Bureau of the Census, as well as to help convince Congress and other stakeholders that the Bureau has chosen an optimum design and will manage operations and control costs effectively, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve the rigor of its planning process by developing an operational plan that consolidates budget, methodological, and other relevant information about the 2010 Census into a single, comprehensive project plan that would be updated as needed. Individual elements could include detailed milestone estimates that identify all significant interrelationships.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In order to ensure the performance and accountability of the 2010 census, we recommended that the Bureau create risk and mitigation plans that fully address all significant potential risks. On April 3, 2008, the Secretary of Commerce announced a redesign of the census and that the Bureau would revert back to a paper-based nonresponse follow-up operation. On June 4, 2008, the Bureau provided us with a copy of its risk register, which includes 25 program-level risks some of which were associated with a paper-based nonresponse follow-up operation, as well as each risk's probability of occurring and its impact on areas such as cost and schedule.

    Recommendation: To enhance the performance and accountability of the Bureau of the Census, as well as to help convince Congress and other stakeholders that the Bureau has chosen an optimum design and will manage operations and control costs effectively, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve the rigor of its planning process by developing an operational plan that consolidates budget, methodological, and other relevant information about the 2010 Census into a single, comprehensive project plan that would be updated as needed. Individual elements could include risk and mitigation plans that fully address all significant potential risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Associate Director for the Decennial Census announced in a memorandum in May 2004 specific performance targets for its 2010 Census strategic goals. For example, one of the Bureau's goals is to improve the accuracy of census coverage. Consistent with GAO's recommendation, the performance targets detailed in the memorandum include reducing by at least 50 percent the measured rate of duplication for persons in households. Another strategic goal of the 2010 Census is to contain costs--the Bureau's target is to conduct the 2010 Census for an amount that is less than the cost of repeating the approach used in 2000.

    Recommendation: To enhance the performance and accountability of the Bureau of the Census, as well as to help convince Congress and other stakeholders that the Bureau has chosen an optimum design and will manage operations and control costs effectively, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to improve the rigor of its planning process by developing an operational plan that consolidates budget, methodological, and other relevant information about the 2010 Census into a single, comprehensive project plan that would be updated as needed. Individual elements could include specific performance goals, how the Bureau's efforts, procedures, and projects would contribute to those goals, and what performance measures would be used.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: OMB responded to this GAO recommendation by noting that it supports the principle of transparency of Census life-cycle costs, but stated that it already addresses this objective through internal budget review procedures, which, according to OMB, ensures that cost estimates are not exceeded without clear justification. In addition, OMB stated that the best mechanism to provide life-cycle cost estimates is the Census Bureau's report on life-cycle costs, which the Bureau regularly updates.

    Recommendation: As part of this process, OMB should establish triggers that would signal when the yearly 2010 Census costs, total 2010 Census costs, or both exceeded some predetermined amount. In such instances, the Bureau of the Census should then be required to prepare a special report to Congress and OMB justifying why the additional costs were necessary and what alternatives were considered.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: OMB responded to this recommendation by noting that it supports the principle of transparency of Census life-cycle costs, but stated that it already addressed this objective through internal budget review procedures, which, according to OMB, ensures that cost estimates are not exceeded without clear justification. In addition, OMB stated that the best mechanism to provide life-cycle cost estimates is the Census Bureau's report on life-cycle costs, which the Bureau says it regularly updates.

    Recommendation: To help control the cost of the 2010 Census and inform deliberations on the acceptability of those costs, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should take steps to ensure that the Bureau of the Census improves the transparency of the fiscal exposure associated with the census. Specifically, OMB should ensure that the Bureau, in a notational item in the Program and Financing schedule of the President's budget, include an updated estimate of the life cycle costs of the census and the amount of money the Bureau expects to spend in each year of the cycle, as well as an explanation of any material changes from previous plans. The information should also contain an analysis of the sensitivity of the cost figures to specific assumptions, including a range of values for key cost assumptions, their impact on total cost estimates of the census, the likelihood associated with those ranges, and their impact on the total estimated cost of the census.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau included an assessment of its coverage measurement program as part of its research, development, and testing program for 2010. For example, in its 2006 Census Test Project Management Plan, the Bureau noted that it would test data collection methods for coverage measurement to determine the extent to which it can measure accuracy at various levels of geography. In a January 2004 decision memo, the Associate Director for the Decennial Census announced that the Bureau would develop a coverage measurement program to allow it to assess the accuracy of the 2010 Census and help improve counting methodologies for future censuses. The memo further stated that the results of the program would not be used to adjust census numbers.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the nation has at its disposal the best possible data should there be problems with the quality of 2010 Census, the Bureau of the Census, with input from both majority and minority parties in the Senate and House of Representatives, should research the feasibility of procedures that could allow it to adjust census results for those purposes for which it is both legal and appropriate to do so and, if found to be feasible, test those procedures during the 2006 census test and 2008 census dress rehearsal.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

 

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