Bureau Needs to Improve Scheduling Practices to Enhance Ability to Meet Address List Development Deadlines
GAO-14-59: Published: Nov 21, 2013. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 2013.
What GAO Found
The Census Bureau (Bureau) is not producing reliable schedules for the two programs most relevant to building the Master Address File (MAF)--the 2020 Research and Testing program and the Geographic Support System Initiative.
- The Bureau did not include all activities in either schedule. The schedules appeared to have reasonable durations for most activities, but they did not include information about required resources.
- For both schedules, the Bureau logically linked many activities in a sequence. Yet in both schedules the Bureau did not identify the preceding and following activity for a significant number of activities. Without this logic, the effect of a change in one activity on future activities cannot be seen in the schedule, potentially resulting in unforeseen delays.
- The Bureau is not in a position to carry out a quantitative risk analysis on the schedules.
As a result of these issues, the schedules are producing inaccurate dates, which could mislead Bureau managers to falsely conclude that all of the work is on schedule when it may not be. Without reliable schedule information, such as valid forecasted dates and the amount of flexibility remaining in the schedule, management faces challenges in assessing the progress of MAF development efforts and determining what activities most need attention. Staff managing the schedules said that they had not received thorough training or certification on scheduling best practices, and, according to schedule managers, staff turnover contributed to the issues GAO identified. Workforce planning and training can help the Bureau have the skills in place to ensure that characteristics of a reliable schedule are met to support key management decisions.
The Bureau has documented collaboration activities that follow many leading practices for collaboration. Because several divisions are involved in efforts to develop the MAF, collaboration across these divisions is critical. In recent months, the Bureau has put in place a variety of mechanisms to aid coordination, such as crosscutting task teams. For example, research projects relevant to developing the MAF have representation from multiple divisions. The Bureau has also established memorandums of understanding across divisions to provide a broad framework for working together. Continued management attention to collaboration practices will help to ensure that collaboration across units is occurring as MAF development continues.
Why GAO Did This Study
According to the Bureau, it is committed to limiting its per household cost for the 2020 Census to that of the 2010 Census, and believes that reducing the cost of updating the MAF can be of significant help. Because of tight deadlines and the involvement of several different Bureau units in this effort, effective scheduling and collaboration practices are important for the entire process to stay on track.
GAO was asked to examine scheduling and collaboration in the Bureau's efforts to develop a more cost-effective MAF. GAO (1) assessed the reliability of the schedules for two key MAF development programs, and (2) examined the extent to which the Bureau is following leading practices for collaboration for its MAF development work. GAO analyzed the schedules for the two programs most relevant to developing the address list, and reviewed strategic plans and other documents establishing coordination mechanisms and compared them to leading practices for intra-agency collaborative efforts.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the Census Director take a number of actions to improve the reliability of its schedules, including steps to ensure that all relevant activities are included in the schedules, complete scheduling logic is in place, and a quantitative risk assessment is conducted. In addition, GAO recommends a robust workforce planning effort to identify and address gaps in scheduling skills for staff that work on schedules. The Department of Commerce concurred and suggested several clarifications, which GAO included in the report as appropriate.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: The Census Bureau agreed with this recommendation and stated that they are reviewing and refining project schedules to ensure that they include the full scope of work needed to reach operational decision points for the 2020 Census. The 2020 Research and Planning Office currently has 55 decennial project schedules, consisting of more than 3,700 activities. Several project schedules were re-baselined and pushed into production in January 2014. Focused integration sessions occurred in late January and February 2014 resulting in revised schedules. The Bureau released its operational plan and other documentation in October 2015. Bureau officials stated this information provides evidence that they implemented this recommendation. We have an ongoing audit looking at the Bureau's integrated schedule which we plan to report on in 2016.
Recommendation: To help maintain a more thorough and insightful 2020 Census development schedule in order to better manage risks to a successful 2020 Census, the Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of Economic Affairs should direct the U.S. Census Bureau to improve the comprehensiveness of schedules, including ensuring that all relevant activities are included in the schedule.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: The Census Bureau agreed with this recommendation and stated that it has already begun maturing project schedules to ensure that the logical relationships between discrete schedules are put into place. Schedule integration sessions across projects and programs were held in late January 2014 and into February 2014 and periodically since then, where work is deconstructed into detailed schedules. As the Census Bureau continues to mature its schedule and scheduling process for the 2020 Census and related tests, its officials say they are taking care to ensure that complete logic is in place and that they are adding additional activities on a rolling basis. Bureau officials believe this ongoing work with the 2020 schedule will ensure they have a robust tool to help manage the 2020 program and make key decisions. The Bureau released its operational plan and other documentation in October 2015. Bureau officials stated this information provides evidence that they implemented this recommendation. We have an ongoing audit looking at the Bureau's integrated schedule, which we plan to report on in 2016.
Recommendation: To help maintain a more thorough and insightful 2020 Census development schedule in order to better manage risks to a successful 2020 Census, the Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of Economic Affairs should direct the U.S. Census Bureau to improve the construction of schedules, including ensuring complete logic is in place to identify the preceding and subsequent activities as well as a critical path that can be used to make decisions.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: The Census Bureau agreed with this recommendation and states it is maturing its project schedules, as described in recommendations 1 and 2 above. As part of the maturation process, a quantitative risk assessment will be conducted of decennial project schedules. In 2015, the Bureau provided us with a preliminary output from its risk analysis software as a demonstration of the type of analysis it is committed to. We have an ongoing audit looking at the Bureau's integrated schedule, including its use of a quantitative risk analysis, which we plan to report on in 2016.
Recommendation: To help maintain a more thorough and insightful 2020 Census development schedule in order to better manage risks to a successful 2020 Census, the Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of Economic Affairs should direct the U.S. Census Bureau to improve the credibility of schedules, including conducting a quantitative risk assessment.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: The Census Bureau agreed with this recommendation and states it is taking steps to improve its scheduling practices and to initiate a comprehensive workforce planning process for those working on decennial project schedules. Bureau officials state they are currently evaluating the skills needed for scheduling support of the 2020 Census and will take the appropriate steps to acquire and develop the appropriate mix of skill sets, including but not limited to developing certified scheduling staff, hiring expert contractors to assist with periodic training, and scheduling standards implementation. They also state that the Census Bureau is committed to continuing to strengthen the schedule management plan, practices, and methods in place for the 2020 Census. The Bureau has experienced turnover in the leadership of the team responsible for 2020 scheduling, and we await confirmation of the actions taken in response to this recommendation.
Recommendation: The Director of the U.S. Census Bureau should initiate a robust workforce planning process for those working on schedules related to the Master Address File, including actions such as an analysis of skills needed, to identify and address gaps in scheduling skills.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census