Census 2020 Cost-Saving Innovations

This is the fourth blog post in an in-depth series exploring the history and future of the US Census. Explore our first post introducing readers to the history of the census and its importance or the first post introducing the census budget. If you’re interested in other subjects related to Census 2020, check out the list of all our blog posts about it at the end of this post.

In order to meet the ambitious goal of staying under the cost of the 2010 Census with the many challenges the census presents, the Bureau needs to be innovative as they carry out the census in significant ways. Through reports and design documents a few key innovation strategies have been outlined for Census 2020.


The Census Bureau recently announced a plan to develop and maintain a new central and integrated method for managing the core information technology aspects of all censuses and surveys they conduct. This new integrated IT program became known CEDCaP, and is estimated to offer significant cost savings in the long run.

The Census Bureau carries out nearly 100 different surveys and 3 different censuses, including the constitutionally-mandated Decennial Census. Previously, each one of these surveys had unique data collection and processing systems designed for them to meet the specific needs of the survey. These systems were seldom adaptable and new systems had to be developed for new surveys. Developing hundreds of unique systems places significant costs on the Census Bureau, so they decided to develop a single unified set of systems that could be adapted to all surveys regardless of size or subject. The system has large upfront costs, but estimated savings are significant.

Increased use of Administrative Data

Another significant innovation the Bureau is hoping to employ during the 2020 Census is the increased and more effective use of administrative/third party data. Administrative data is any data that comes from other functions of government outside of the census, whereas third-party data comes from private organizations.  The Bureau hopes to cut unnecessary costs from the 2020 budget by using this data to better isolate which houses people are actually living in, and where people most likely are. They are also planning on using the data to conduct a smarter marketing campaign that allows them to send highly targeted ads to populations that would otherwise be difficult to count (look for a 3-part series on Hard to Count populations on our blog soon).

Increased Automation

There are rapid advancements in technology taking place in automation right now, and the Census Bureau hopes to capitalize on it by increasing the amount of processes that are automated. The effort towards automation is an attempt to minimize the number of manual tasks that are done, leading to a more efficient system with significant cost savings.  A big component of this will be the push towards a mostly digital census where data will be automatically sent to a server and processed. Additionally, the Census Bureau also hopes to significantly reduce the number of offices nationwide because many of the offices’ functions can be automated in at least some capacity such as outreach and service/assistance.

Self-Response Rates  

One of the largest portions of the census budget is dedicated to following up with people who do not self-respond to the questionnaire. This is because the Bureau sends staff to homes where residents did not respond in order to collect the information required. This process can be costly and extremely inefficient if non-responders are not clustered, requiring enumeration staff to travel large distances to gather the information. In 2020, the Census Bureau is hoping to develop new methods that will encourage self-response at much greater rates, potentially reducing costs and encouraging efficiency.

The Census Bureau is hoping to increase response rates with a few techniques including more targeted advertising, increased social media presence, direct emails stating the obligation to fill out the form, and a general increase in awareness. Estimates suggest that targeted use of media advertising could lead to significant cost savings down the road.

Moving Forward

The 2020 Census is less than 3 years away which means the Census Bureau is getting much closer to providing a final plan and cost estimate. It is then crucial that they are able to get all plans in order for the upcoming end-to-end census test in 2018. The end-to-end test, commonly dubbed as the census dress rehearsal, involves a full test of all strategies and systems developed employed as they are intended to be delivered during the actual census. The test is crucial for understanding how the strategies will work and making better estimates of resources required. Hopefully, despite the cutbacks to the tests, the bureau will obtain enough useful information to continue towards an accurate 2020 count of the U.S. population.

When the test is complete we will have a much better idea on how close to budget the 2020 Census will be, and reevaluations can be made. Until that point, all eyes are on the Bureau as they attempt to implement significant innovations and bring down the cost of the census.

Census 2020 Blog Posts