Commerce looks to the post office for census help

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testified the department is "in negotiations" with USPS to use its postal carriers part-time to conduct Census operations during the 2018 end-to-end test.

census paper form
 

Could the Census Bureau partner with the U.S. Postal Service for the 2020 census?

At an Oct. 31 Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testified that his department Commerce is “in negotiations” with USPS to use its postal carriers part-time to conduct census operations for the Providence, R.I., site in the Census Bureau's 2018 end-to-end test.

“When the postal system worker has finished the day’s work, [he or she] would become a temporary employee of ours, on our payroll, and then conduct the enumeration process,” Ross said. “Our feeling is these are people with very good institutional knowledge” of assigned areas, allowing them canvass blocks more quickly than a less familiar enumerator.

Ross also suggested that using postal workers could “overcome” feelings of governmental mistrust that factor into low census response rates while maintaining an accurate count.

The idea to lean on postal carriers to canvass blocks is one that’s been kicked around before.

In a 2011 report, the Government Accountability Office found that “using mail carriers to conduct census field operations at USPS pay rates would not be cost-effective.” GAO reasoned that the pay rates of mail carriers can be two to three times higher than that of census enumerators.

Yet while individual mail carriers may be more expensive than canvassers, GAO head Gene Dodaro said at the Oct. 31 hearing that the idea was worth testing, as using mail carriers who know the routes could prove more efficient. Dodaro added that employing retired postal workers at typical enumerator rates was another possibility for improving the efficiency of the enumeration.

Another area where Ross said Census and USPS were experimenting together was in standing up “kiosks with the census forms in each post office” to encourage response in rural and tribal areas.

Ross also testified to the progress the Census Bureau is making on various GAO recommendations.

As of October, the agency had resolved just 48 of the 84 GAO recommendations made over the past decade. Ross testified that Census has submitted action plans with due dates for seven of the outstanding 36. “As to those,” Ross said, “we have submitted documents which the GAO is reviewing.”

Included in those documents submitted to GAO is the updated lifecycle cost estimate of $15.6 billion.

Dodaro said that while he was “very pleased” Ross set out to update the estimate, he could not testify to the reliability of the new estimate “until we’ve received all the supporting documentation and had a chance to carefully review it.”

Other concerns Dodaro raised include the status and security of Census’s IT systems, and the persisting absence of permanent Census director and deputy director.

Dodaro testified he was “very concerned” about the risk posed by inadequate testing of IT security, noting about three-quarters of the 43 IT systems will contain sensitive information.

“I’m really concerned the main casualty of this will be not only potential problems in the operations, but reduced testing for security,” he said.

In addition to the need for a Senate-confirmed leadership, Dodaro testified that the program office tasked with overseeing the integration contractor for Census’s 43 IT systems has vacancies in 35 of 58 positions.

To help manage day-to-day operations, Ross said, the department brought in four outside consultants — two with previous Census Bureau experience and two “recently retired” IBM executives — “as a temporary substitution” for a Senate-confirmed director.

Ross also lamented the complexity of the IT contracts that can drive up costs, pointing out the dozen or so major IT contracts involve about 100 subcontractors. It is “totally too late” to change the contracts, he added.

“As get through the 2020, I promise you there will be a thick volume of lessons learned,” Ross said.

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