2020 Census:

Additional Steps Are Needed to Build on Early Planning

GAO-12-626: Published: May 17, 2012. Publicly Released: May 17, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Census Bureau’s (Bureau) early planning and preparation efforts for the 2020 Census are consistent with most leading practices in each of the three management areas GAO reviewed. For example, with respect to its effort to transform its decennial organization, top Bureau leadership has been driving the transformation, and the agency has focused on a key set of principles as it begins to roll-out the strategy to staff. Furthermore, the Bureau has created a timeline to build momentum and show progress. At the same time, however, the amount of change-related activity the Bureau is considering as part of its reorganization of its decennial directorate may not be aligned with the resources the Bureau has allocated to plan, coordinate, and carry it out, and, as a result, the planned transformation efforts may not be sustainable or successful.

Similarly, the Bureau is taking steps consistent with many of the leading practices for long-term project planning, such as by, among other activities, issuing its series of 2020 planning memorandums in 2009 and 2010 that laid out a highlevel framework documenting goals, assumptions, and timing of the remaining four phases of the 2020 Census. The Bureau also created a high-level schedule of program management activities for the remaining phases, documented key elements such as the Bureau’s decennial mission, vision, and guiding principles, and produced a business plan to support budget requests, which is being updated annually. Still, the Bureau’s schedule does not include milestones or deadlines for key decisions needed to support transition between the planning phases, which could result in later downstream planning activity not being based on evidence from such sources as early research and testing. Furthermore, there has been little effective outreach to the Bureau’s congressional stakeholders about its reexamination of census processes and design, which could result in a lack of support on potentially complex or sensitive topics that can be crucial for creating a stable environment in which to prepare for a census.

In the area of strategic workforce planning, the Bureau is taking steps consistent with leading practices such as by identifying current and future critical occupations with a pilot assessment of the skills and competencies of selected information technology 2020 Census positions. However, the Bureau has done little yet either to identify the goals that should guide workforce planning or to determine how to monitor, report, and evaluate its progress toward achieving them, which could help the Bureau identify and avoid possible barriers to implementing its workforce plans.

The steps the Bureau has taken and has planned are positioning it well during this early phase of planning for the 2020 Census. Since much of the Bureau’s early progress is tied to additional planning and other activity needed over the coming months, equally important will be the need to execute these activities in a timely manner to maintain the Bureau’s early momentum toward a cost-effective 2020 Census.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO’s prior work has shown that it will be important for the Bureau to reexamine its management and culture as well as the fundamental design of the census in order to ensure a costeffective census. The Bureau recognizes this and has taken steps in at least three management areas toward achieving these goals. As requested, this report addresses the extent to which the Bureau is taking steps in accordance with selected leading practices that GAO identified for (1) organizational transformation, (2) long-term project planning, and (3) strategic workforce planning in preparing for the 2020 Census. To meet these objectives, GAO identified leading practices in these areas that are relevant to the Bureau’s 2020 Census planning, reviewed Bureau documents, and interviewed officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Census Director take a number of actions to make 2020 Census planning more consistent with key practices in the three management areas, such as examining planned transformation activity to ensure its alignment with resources, developing a more-detailed long-term schedule to smooth transition to later planning phases, implementing effective congressional outreach to ensure a stable planning environment, and setting workforce planning goals and monitor them to ensure their attainment.

The Department of Commerce concurred with GAO’s findings and recommendations and provided minor clarifications, which were included in the final report.

For more information, contact Robert Goldenkoff at (202) 512-2757 or goldenkoffr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, the Bureau made several changes. For example, the Bureau established a staffing plan with key roles and responsibilities needed for the execution of the various components of the organizational transformation. In addition, the Bureau hired a contractor to assist with planning and executing individual interviews, group interviews/focus groups, and on-line surveys, to gather feedback and suggestions from Bureau staff and outreach to other stakeholders across and outside of the Bureau. Finally, the Bureau chartered a Human Capital Management Strategy Team to play a major role in the workforce planning for the implementation phase of the transformation. Such active assessment of workforce needs and realignment to meet the mission -- such as supporting the organizational transformation -- puts the Bureau in a better position to carryout its 2020 Census planning.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's process of organizational transformation, long-term planning, and strategic workforce planning for the 2020 Census, and thus better position the Bureau to carry out a cost-effective decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to, in order to ensure the Bureau's decennial organizational transformation is sustained and successful, examine the alignment between the levels of activity planned for the transformation and the resources dedicated to their implementation, and adjust the activity and resources as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Bureau officials have announced the release of an operational plan in October 2015, and have stated that among the materials to be released are descriptions of high level timelines resolving additional deliverable.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's process of organizational transformation, long-term planning, and strategic workforce planning for the 2020 Census, and thus better position the Bureau to carry out a cost-effective decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to, in order to ensure prioritization and timely completion of all necessary research and testing efforts, as well as timely transition to later 2020 Census phases, develop and implement a long-term planning schedule that includes key milestones and deadlines, including (1) deadlines for decisions that directly affect activity in later 2020 Census phases; (2) a schedule for creating, revising, or updating governance, program management, and system engineering and architecture plans to be used in later 2020 Census phases beyond research and testing; and (3) expected times of delivery for Bureau-wide enterprise tools, processes, and standards that 2020 Census planning would be expected to use.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In November 2014 the Bureau provided GAO with a "congressional engagement plan" that describes many of the activities that the Bureau undertakes to communicate externally, including with the Congress. For example, the plan describes regular briefings of oversight committee staff as well as the Bureau's public quarterly "program management reviews". The 4-page plan by itself does not articulate goals or describe strategies the Bureau may be considering or undertaking that might encourage a productive public dialogue about its design changes it is considering, or issues those changes raise, such as privacy, cost-quality tradeoffs, etc. As of September 2015, we are scheduling additional conversation with Bureau executives responsible for congressional outreach to learn what else the Bureau may be doing to supplement the engagement plan.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's process of organizational transformation, long-term planning, and strategic workforce planning for the 2020 Census, and thus better position the Bureau to carry out a cost-effective decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to, in order to inform congressional decision-making related to the 2020 Census, develop and implement an effective congressional outreach strategy, particularly on new design elements the Bureau is researching and considering as well as on cost-quality trade-offs of potential design decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Bureau assigns outstanding recommendations from GAO and others within the Bureau's knowledge management database to various leads, such as specific 2020 Census research and testing project teams, and the Bureau regularly collates status updates on open OIG and GAO recommendations for reporting to Department officials. The Bureau has not yet provided evidence of either regular or open reporting on the status of other recommendations, such as from its own prior evaluations, ongoing tests, or the National Academy of Sciences. Senior Bureau officials have told us that while they see benefits from taking additional steps. they are allocating resources to other activities of higher priority at this time. We continue checking in with them periodically, and did so as recently as June 2015.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's process of organizational transformation, long-term planning, and strategic workforce planning for the 2020 Census, and thus better position the Bureau to carry out a cost-effective decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to, in order to improve the Bureau's process for following up on Bureau and oversight agencies' recommendations to improve the 2020 Census, (1) assess the status of recommendation follow-up at regular intervals, such as every 12 months; and (2) periodically report on the status of recommendation follow-up--such as on the Bureau's intranet or Internet pages.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2014 the Bureau provided action plans and briefed GAO on its strategic workforce planning efforts to implement agency-wide skills gap analyses. The Bureau has identified workforce gaps and had planning in place to begin addressing them. In January 2015 the Bureau provided examples of steps it had taken to implement them.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's process of organizational transformation, long-term planning, and strategic workforce planning for the 2020 Census, and thus better position the Bureau to carry out a cost-effective decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to, in order to help the Bureau identify performance shortfalls and appropriate corrective actions in achieving its strategic workforce planning goals, set agency workforce planning goals, and determine how the Bureau will monitor, report, and evaluate its progress toward achieving those goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2015 GAO received numerous action plans and other documents demonstrating outreach the Bureau was taking with external stakeholders, such as the through its Corporate Executive Board and the National Academy for Public Administration getting feedback on its workforce planning.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau's process of organizational transformation, long-term planning, and strategic workforce planning for the 2020 Census, and thus better position the Bureau to carry out a cost-effective decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees the Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau to, in order to help the Bureau develop strategies to meet its objective of having a workforce matched with the demands of the 2020 Census, identify external stakeholders whose expertise and experience can provide insights to Bureau workforce planning challenges, such as recruitment, and reach out to them and incorporate their input as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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