2020 Census Budget Challenges

This is the third blog post in an in-depth series exploring the history and future of the U.S. Census. Explore our first post introducing readers to the history of the census and its importance or the second post introducing the census budget.History of Data Driven Detroit.

The Census Bureau has made great strides in ensuring that the 2020 Census is filled with cost-saving innovations and stays below its cost target of $12.5 billion.  Despite the progress, however, there are still many challenges ahead before implementing an efficient census. We’ll discuss some of the Census 2020 solutions in the next blog, but first we detail some of the most pressing hurdles the bureau needs to overcome to stay on target.

Coordination and Alignment

In a recent report, the GAO commented that at that their core the Census Bureau and CEDCaP (a new data management system) were severely lacking alignment and coordination in scheduling, priorities, and risk assessment. The GAO also noted that this could lead to duplication of effort in some circumstances and put both organizations at risk of underperformance. Similarly Dave Powner from the GAO suspects the IT work could end up costing upwards of $1 billion extra on top of the $2.4 billion estimated currently due in part to these inefficiencies in coordination.  

Related to the topic of coordination, in May the Census Bureau’s former director John Thompson unexpectedly resigned after a string of questioning surrounding the difficult 2020 budgeting process. With only 3 years until 2020, not having an experienced director managing the operation could potentially lead to struggles in internal coordination and a new nominee will need to be chosen quickly if they are to be an effective replacement.

Additionally, in its analysis of the 2010 Census, one of the largest problems the GAO noted was lack of internal coordination and communication within the Census Bureau, leading to inefficient distribution of resources and less than ideal outcomes. The bureau is going to have to focus hard on coordinating its goals and processes across the organization in order achieve the intended cost savings of its innovations.

The U.S. Population is Becoming Harder to Count

Another upcoming and ongoing challenge that the bureau can do very little about is that the U.S. population is becoming harder to count in general. This is due to a variety of reasons, one being that the nation is becoming increasingly diverse, and diverse populations are harder to capture under a single strategy so more efforts need to be made to address the many diverse groups (a 3-part series on hard to count populations is forthcoming). Further complications might be found in the nation’s decreased trust in the government in general, possibly resulting in an increased reluctance to fill out the census questionnaire as there is doubt the government will use the information properly.

The population is also trending towards more complex and unconventional living arrangements that make targeting everyone in a household especially difficult. For example, houses with many adult roommates may not know if only one of them should fill out the form, or if they should each fill it out, perhaps leading to only half of the house being counted. This is further exasperated by the fact that the nation is increasingly mobile and the bureau cannot as easily keep track of where people move in and out of, potentially wasting significant resources on unoccupied addresses.

Rapidly Changing Technological Environments

A major challenge in budgeting for the 2020 Census is the rapid rate at which technological innovation occurs. This may initially seem like it would be a benefit to budgeting, but it can make planning quite difficult. The Census Bureau has an obligation to lay out its strategies and budgets for the coming Census as precisely as possible many years in advance. However, they also face a strong demand to make use of the latest/most efficient technology when conducting a census. This leads to challenges as the bureau cannot predict what technologies will be available come census time when they are releasing preliminary budgets and strategies many years in advance. This leads to a constant balance between using older technologies for consistency and using new technologies at costs that are potentially higher than estimated.

Constrained Fiscal Environments

In President Trump’s recently released 2018 budget, he highlighted the 2020 Census as a priority item, opting to provide an additional $130 million to the Bureau. This may appear like a commitment to ensure the census has the resources it takes for 2020, but the cyclical nature of the census budget means that the Bureau require more funding the closer they get to a decennial census year. In reality, the $130 million increase was a significant decrease from the bureau’s proposed 2018 budget.

Although the budget cuts to the Bureau are small relative to the total cost of the census, they have the potential to have significant long term costs. For example, in order to carry out an efficient and effective 2020 Census the bureau has to ensure that the system they have in place is going to function as intended. In order to do this they carry out field tests and studies in the years leading up to the Census to determine what the most efficient methods are in designing the Census plan. Recent concerns over the annual budget have caused the Bureau to cancel a variety of field tests in 2018, potentially leading to a less efficient operation in 2020. In general, increasingly constrained fiscal environments could make proper design and testing difficult.

Our next blog post will discuss some of the innovations and efficiencies that the Census Bureau has created for Census 2020.

Census 2020 Blog Posts