Census

Census pushes electronic reporting for company survey

census paper form

The decennial census form may still be on paper, but the Census Bureau is pushing electronic reporting for its business surveys.

The Census Bureau is increasing its reliance on electronic reporting for its business surveys, with an eye to retooling its collection to be 100 percent electronic by 2018. The shift has been a gradual process, but it is accelerating with this year's Company Organization Survey, and is a leading edge of government efforts to move all census data collection efforts online.

"What's changing now is that we're going from a strategy of offering electronic reporting to a strategy of pushing electronic reporting," said Eddie Salyers, assistant division chief for collection activities in the Economic Planning and Coordination Division at the Census.

The Company Organization Survey takes place annually in the off years of the economic census, which is conducted every five years. The last full economic survey covered 2012, and summary reports on the data will be released through 2016. The next one will cover 2017 and be conducted in 2018.

Starting in 2014, Salyers explained, the Census Bureau will be directing an estimated 50,000 companies to use online reporting as the default choice. It works like this: Companies receive a letter in the mail with password access information to a secure website where they can log answers to survey questions. Large companies have the option of reporting their data on a spreadsheet and uploading it. The initial contact for the survey is always made via a printed letter, because email is not considered secure enough, Salyers said.

The shift to pushing electronic collection is also a preview of a planned move to an enterprise-wide data collection model. The bureau's fiscal 2015 budget request includes funding for bringing all the disparate collection efforts onto a single system. The Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing Initiative "will create integrated and standardized systems, replacing unique, survey-specific systems. This solution will work not only for the 2020 census, but also for all of our survey operations," said Census Director John Thompson in a March 2014 blog post. According to documents filed on the Federal IT Dashboard, the effort will cost $435.2 million and run through 2020.

The Company Organization Survey improvements provide an early look at how some of this might work.

For example, the economic census has been using the same online approach since about 2002, building on existing systems by designing online reporting to track with the paper forms. Currently, the company survey has two systems, one that hosts forms and another that accepts spreadsheet uploads. But, the Census Bureau is "looking at major redesigns of those systems" for the 2017 economic census, which begins in 2018, Salyers said. Future iterations will be able to support more a dynamic questionnaire, which could eliminate the need for follow-up phone calls.

"Before, we designed based around paper. Now we're designing based on electronic and it will open up all those options," Salyers said.

The next economic census promises to be a test run for the 2020 decennial census, which is going to have a significant online component, with individual households being invited to do the first stage of self-reporting via a secure, online system.

"We'll probably mail out to four million companies," in 2017, Salyers said. "Not as big as the decennial census, but it provides some help there with building out the volume of data being collected."

For fiscal 2015, the Census Bureau plans to complete development and planning and write project requirements for 2020 operations. Tests are planned for improvements to current data collection practices, including tools to bring new efficiency to the movements of door-to-door enumerators, and testing a bring-your-own-device system for census workers. So far, no contracts have been written on the research and testing phase.

"They need to make some decisions about what kind of systems to put in place, since 2020 is right around the corner, in government time," said Kyra Fussell, a senior analyst who covers the Commerce Department for contracting consultancy Deltek.

The agency is also planning to test online self-reporting for the decennial census with a 2014 test of about 200,000 households in Washington, D.C., and abutting Montgomery County, Md.. The plan is for households to report requested information online, and for census workers to follow up with those who don't respond using a data collection tool accessible via employee-owned devices.

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