Census Bureau considers cost-saving measures

The Census Bureau is studying ways to run a more cost-effective census in 2020, anticipating that a repeat of its 2010 data-collection efforts would lead to unsustainable costs.  

The options include using online surveys, increasing use of federal administrative records to compile data, using a more targeted approach to address canvassing, and relying more on the private sector for help with geographic mapping — to make sure map features are aligned with their true locations. 

The Census Bureau has about seven years to determine how well these plans would work and how to potentially implement them. That may sound like plenty of time to get the job done, but a recent report from the Government Accountability Office warned that the time frame leaves “little room for delay or missteps.”

The Census Bureau piloted an internet-based response option during the 2000 census, but the costs ended up being higher than expected and the overall response rate did not increase. More recent tests in 2011 showed that the option was improving the response numbers.

The bureau plans to offer an internet response option for its 2013 American Community Survey in order to further gauge the effectiveness of that alternative. 

The agency’s 2010 address-canvassing operation proved to be one of the most expensive and labor-intensive aspects of the census that year, requiring 140,000 temporary workers to verify 145 million addresses at a cost of $444 million, according to the GAO report.

For 2020, the bureau hopes to get an early handle on address changes by coordinating with government agencies that continually update their databases. The idea is to know ahead of time which locations would be most likely to need direct canvassing to verify addresses.   

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Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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