Oversight

IG: Census underestimates costs of 2020 count

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Michele Paccione. 

The Census Bureau included "inaccurate statements and assumptions" in its 2016 test plan, and continues to underestimate how much conducting the 2020 enumeration will cost, according to a recent watchdog report.

Census's plan to employ an unprecedented scale of technology is expected to save over $5 billion, but oversight reports have repeatedly dinged Census's cost estimates as inaccurate.

This time, the Department of Commerce Inspector General alleged the bureau underestimated its workload and incorrectly assessed its methodology and operational plan.

Specifically, auditors reported that Census could be underestimating the number of non-response follow-up cases possibly "more than 11 million," based on the extrapolation of numbers from the 2016 field tests. Enumerators are limited to six attempts, but auditors found some interpreted six attempts as "six days" of attempts, leading to more expensive and time consuming enumerator workloads.

"We believe inaccurate cost estimating is occurring in part because of poor communication between those responsible for developing the cost estimate and those responsible for testing [non-response follow-up] strategies," the report states.

Census Director John Thompson said in a written response that the 11 million number is too high and "cannot be supported."

The bureau is on a fiscal high wire, after pledging to reduce projected costs for the 2020 enumeration by $5 billion. According to its 2015 plan, the Census Bureau is looking to conduct the 2020 enumeration for about $12.5 billion, down from estimates of $17.8 billion based on the 2010 Census design.

The Trump administration's budget proposal calls for $1.5 billion for the Census in fiscal year 2018, which represents a $100 million increase over the final budget for fiscal year 2016, but is lower than Census's fiscal year 2017 budget request of $1.6 billion.

IG auditors warned that the bureau did not require enumerators to work at the times when respondent were most likely to be home and needed to change its rules accordingly. This finding tallies with a Government Accountability Office recommendation. The GAO recently added the 2020 Census to its annual high-risk list:

Auditors are looking for the bureau to include their findings in 2020 cost estimates and to develop updated enumerator guidance based around optimal in-person response times. They also recommended that census implement controls that would prevent supervisors from ignoring alerts and improve field staff training.

Census agreed with all of the recommendations, but stated it believes its budget request already accounts for "various situations that might require more field visits than expected," the report states.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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