Tag Archives: Census 2020

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, my blog practically writes itself. I mean, it’s hard to make this stuff up!

Take, for example, the recent census hazing in the House of Representatives. As lawmaker after lawmaker rose to offer amendments chipping away at the Census Bureau’s budget — already down 9 percent coming out of committee — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe visit an otolaryngologist; the hearing is one of the first things to go at my age.

Anyway, most offenders took pains to convince colleagues (really, who else but a few fellow census junkies and I would be watching this stuff on C-SPAN when the sun was already rising over Moscow?) that their census piggybank raid was only a teensy percentage of the agency’s budget. Apparently, they forgot the well-known analogy that if everyone in the office sneaks one cookie from the box in the communal kitchen, there won’t be any Thin Mints left when the boss comes in to satisfy his sweet tooth. Okay, I made that up, but you see where this is going. First, $110 million, then $4 million, $3 million here, $12 million there, and soon you’re talking about the entire 2015 “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bill (S. 2437) last week. Discipline reigned — Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) run a tight ship — with nary a raiding amendment to be heard during the entire markup. Senate appropriators deserve some credit; their spending measure includes $1.15 billion for the Census Bureau, with a $66.7 million cut to the account that covers the 2020 Census and ACS (compared to a $238 million cut in the House; the Senate bill reduced President Obama’s total Census Bureau request by $62.5 million, adding $4 million to the request for the Current Population Survey in the second agency account).

But the Senate isn’t cutting the Census Bureau any slack. The committee reminded everyone that the 2020 Census should cost less than the 2010 count, not adjusting for inflation. And then it prodded the agency to secure administrative records from federal, state and local agencies pronto, to help reach that goal. As if datasets are primed, consistent, thorough and ready for transfer at the click of mouse. I have a nagging feeling that lawmakers have not come to grips with the complexity of redesigning the census.

But, back to our friends in the House, whose very membership in that august chamber depends on an accurate census (she said without a trace of irony). The drip-drip-drip actually started in the House Appropriations Committee, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-CA) pilfering $1 million from the census account to help disabled veterans and exploited children. Hard to point the finger there. Except, you can’t open the floodgates and then say you didn’t realize the water would pour out. Sure enough, coastal fisheries soon snapped up another $10 million. And when no one thought to ask whether the Census Bureau might need money to plan for the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization or produce the data that actually guide program dollars to the home district, lawmakers quickly caught on that census funding was theirs for the taking. The madness stopped only after the subcommittee chairman did the math on the House floor and concluded that we might not have a census in 2020.

Truth be told, it’s easy for legislators to draw a straight line between, say, Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (funded through the same bill as the Census Bureau) and more cops on the street, crime prevention, and drug treatment centers in their backyards. The press release just rolls off the tongue. But the fact that these very grants are allocated based on a state’s share of violent crime and population (equally weighted), with population calculated to the hundredth of a percent?Now, that’s getting into the formula weeds, and Congress doesn’t do nuance very well. It’s a press secretary’s nightmare.

And so we have the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of its funding bill, highlighting the $376 million allocated for Byrne grants and other programs that help “fight violent crime, gangs, and terrorism” and “keep our communities safe.” The nation’s primary source of information about its well-being, progress and needs? Didn’t even warrant a footnote in a seven-page press release.

It’s on to the full Senate, and then negotiations to iron out differences between the two measures. Now, if we can only fend off those Alabama red snappers, Pacific coast salmon and Maryland crabs when the bill hits the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Postscript: A Census Project Blog shout-out to Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), who circulated a Dear Colleague letter urging House members to reject cuts to the Census Bureau’s budget and proposals to make American Community Survey response voluntary; and to Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who made a point of telling his colleagues that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not tap the Census Bureau for money.

Let Them Count Fish!

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

My life as a census advocate just got infinitely easier.

The House of Representatives is considering the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, which includes funding for the U.S. Census Bureau. And through a series of late-night amendments, lawmakers stole so much money from the account that funds the 2020 Census and American Community Survey (ACS), to pay for other pet programs, that subcommittee Chairman (and bill manager) Frank Wolf (R-VA) finally pointed out the obvious: If we keep taking money from the Census Bureau, he said, we won’t have a census in 2020.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, because that pesky U.S. Constitution requires one. For the purpose of deciding how many members of Congress each state will have. And how the lines of each district are drawn. Details, details.

Now, Congress has already told the Census Bureau that it must conduct the 2020 Census for the same price tag as the 2010 Census: $13 billion. Proposed investments in research and testing of bold innovations and a redesigned census will help the Census Bureau achieve that goal, with potential savings of $5 billion in the lifecycle cost of the decennial enumeration. The research and testing phase ends next year; the bureau must figure out which new methods are sound enough to pursue in the systems and operational development phase.

But if Congress won’t invest in planning now, the Census Bureau will have no choice but to start preparing for a traditional — and far more costly — paper-and-pencil census. Of course, that design will cost about $18 billion, according to Census Bureau and GAO estimates. Let’s think about this for a minute. The bureau could start the enumeration in 2020, and then stop the count when it reaches its $13 billion limit — and then lawmakers can fight over whose districts disappear. Boy, this is kind of fun…

But maybe I’m just giddy because it’s approaching midnight as I write this (as debate on the House floor goes on and on). Seriously, the Census Bureau does have other, more sensible, choices if Congress decides to slash its funding by 20 percent. It could stop conducting the American Community Survey (ACS). Who needs all of those data on education, veterans, income and poverty, people with disabilities, housing conditions, commuting patterns, language spoken at home, and labor force characteristics, when you can just look it up on the World Wide Web (or survey your surroundings while you sit in traffic)? And think about how much money we would save, not allocating that $415+ billion annually in program funds to state and local governments that Congress bases on ACS data!

I know, I know: many of you really like the ACS. Do not fret; the Census Bureau could cancel the Economic Census (including final tabulation and dissemination of 2012 Economic Census data and the upcoming 2017 survey). Who needs to calculate the GDP anyway?

The House of Representatives should be embarrassed. Do the people we elect to represent us — umm, based on a decennial population count — really believe the Census Bureau can start planning to enumerate 330 million people, in 134+ million households, in, say, 2018? Do they really not understand that if they want to allocate funds based on population, income, commuting and other data, then we need to, ummm, collect those data? Two proposed amendments — one, to the tune of $110 million, offered by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA); the other, for $3 million, by Rep. Jerry McNerney, (D-CA) — shift funds from the census programs to the ever-popular Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in the Department of Justice. Now, I support the work of our men and women in blue as much as the next politician (my father was a police commissioner, for heaven’s sake). But isn’t it a little ironic that applications for COPS grants require data on poverty from the (you guessed it!) American Community Survey.

With a similar flash of foresight, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) stole $12 million from the census account to improve NOAA’s forecasting of severe weather events. Yes, our hearts go out to victims of tornadoes. But where do Oklahomans think their civic agencies get the data for disaster preparedness, evacuation and response? You don’t have to answer that, because if the House votes today to make ACS response voluntary, the Census Bureau might not be able to publish reliable data for about half of the Sooner State’s counties.

By the time I threw in the towel and turned in for the night, the House had cut $118 million from the Census Bureau’s Periodic Census and Programs account, with another $15 million facing roll-call votes in the morning. That’s on top of the $105 million (9 percent) the Appropriations Committee already cut from the bureau’s $1.2 billion budget request. I’m not great at math, but me thinks there is nothing left of the $212 million ramp-up in funding for the 2020 Census.

I think Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) finally captured the insanity — inadvertently, no doubt — of the slow but steady draining of the Census Bureau’s piggybank, when he started talking about the importance of counting salmon, to explain why he wanted $3 million more for fisheries management. (For the record, Chairman Wolf finally put his foot down, and the McDermott amendment went down on a voice vote.) We may not be able to count people in 2020, but we sure as heck want to know how many salmon are swimming upstream. Long live the Republic!

 

A Sweet Pot of Honey

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

News flash: The 2020 Census was on the congressional radar screen — if only for a few brief, but shining, moments.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who heads an appropriations subcommittee, opened his panel’s hearing this week on the Commerce Department’s FY2015 budget request by talking about the census. Eureka!

The Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee amicably discussed the Commerce Department’s funding needs with Secretary Penny Pritzker for two hours. The secretary gave a repeat performance the next day before Senate appropriators. As lawmakers took their turns questioning a personable and well-prepared Pritzker, I was all ears.

Chairman Wolf noted the Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding increase ($754M) for 2020 Census research, testing and planning. (The 2020 Census includes the American Community Survey.) He hoped the cost of the next census wouldn’t exceed the $13 billion price tag for the last one. Which he then reminded everyone was the cost of a new weather satellite. Uh oh.

The National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Satellite and Information Service, and their parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), got a lot of air-time at both hearings. There are sea bass fishermen in Rep. Andy Harris’ (R-MD) coastal Maryland district. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is concerned about weather satellites. Ranking Member Chakah Fattah (D-PA) praised the weather agency for saving lives.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member on both the appropriations committee and subcommittee (translation: influential), schooled me in the challenges facing the red snapper industry. After learning about catch limits, stock assessments and curtailed fishing seasons, I shall henceforth view any selection of a fish entrée as a contribution to the nation’s economic engine. (Putting a positive spin on things, Secretary Pritzker noted that red snappers are getting bigger.)

But I digress. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) (also of both the committee and subcommittee) reminded everyone several times that her panel was heavy on coastal representation. A virtual caucus of legislators knee-deep in the intricacies of the Commerce Department’s vast reach over everything marine, all under the auspices of NOAA. Which eats up more than 60 percent of the department’s budget. Did I mention that there is a “polar gap” in satellite coverage, which can affect livelihoods along our – um – coasts? When Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) highlighted the importance of disaster assistance for fisheries, the chairwoman practically said “amen.”

Speaking of the economy, I learned that Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is responsible for doling out community rebuilding grants after a natural disaster. For example, after devastating tornadoes hit Alabama a few years ago. In the district of subcommittee member Rep. Robert Aderholdt (R-AL). Which is not on the coast, by the way.

Appropriators are very concerned about the economy, especially rebuilding the manufacturing sector, stopping unfair trade practices and boosting exports, creating jobs, and supporting innovation. That would be Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Minority Business Development Agency, International Trade Administration, Patent and Trademark Office, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Which brings me back to the Census Bureau, one of 11 major Commerce agencies. After my “eureka” moment at the start of the House hearing, I had to wait a good long while for the topic to come up again. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) finally weighed in, noting that the census needs to ramp up for 2020 and wondering if the Census Bureau would be ready. Cue the secretary’s talking points about a “timely, trusted, and accurate” census for a lower cost per household. Good, said Rep. Diaz-Balart, because after the 2010 Census, Miami-Hialeah area officials were shocked when their Community Development Block Grant funding went south. Something must have been wrong with the count, the congressman said; perhaps there were too many vacant high-rise units — symbols of the recession’s real estate bust — in the count? And after suggesting that the Census Bureau work more closely with local leaders, it was on to travel and tourism because, you know, Commerce houses the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Miami is a gateway to the U.S. for much of the world. It’s also on the coast.

Rep. Wolf did loop back around to the census during his closing set of questions. Recent data breaches at major retailers clearly were on his mind when he expressed doubt about using personal devices for door-to-door interviewing. Cyber-security is a top priority for the Census Bureau, the secretary assured him, pointedly emphasizing the need to test the “Bring Your Own Device” concept. NIST, by the way, is ground-zero for protecting the nation’s cyber-security infrastructure.

The chairman also sought assurances that the Census Bureau is taking seriously congressional concerns about the American Community Survey’s response burden on the public. Oh, and he questioned the administration’s proposal to cut $45 million from the National Weather Service’s budget.

The Census Bureau’s work barely crossed the Senate radar screen, save a couple of references to the debacle with handheld devices before the 2010 enumeration. Sen. Mikulski did cheerfully inform the secretary that fishing is part of Maryland’s “psychic identity.”

The total request for the Commerce Department is $8.8 billion. That $1.2 billion for the Census Bureau in FY2015 is starting to look like one sweet pot of honey.

Reason Prevails (At Least for Now)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, I just don’t get stuff.

Take, for example, the decision to schedule a vote on H.R. 1078. I muddled through last week with my lingering census headache, trying in vain to divine why a House committee — two years after it examined the pros and cons of making American Community Survey (ACS) response voluntary and heard only a chorus of cons (except from the sponsor of a bill to do just that) — decided to move the bill out of committee anyway.

I considered the arguments against the ACS.

The survey is unconstitutional. Which, I agree, would be a really bad thing. Except the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1870 that Congress has the constitutional authority to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the census. (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex. 1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287) Many federal cases have since described the census as more than a simple headcount, from the very first enumeration in 1790. I think I’ll go with the Supremes on this one.

Speaking of the first census: that’s when James Madison (then a mere member of Congress) made sure that the first Census Act allowed the collection of “useful” social and economic information to support decision-making and resource allocation. A Founding Father seems like a credible source for original intent, don’t you think?

The survey poses an unreasonable burden on the public. Which also would give me pause. Except that only 2.5 percent of U.S. homes receive the ACS each year (and some of those are vacant). The ACS only gathers information needed to divvy up federal grants prudently, implement federal programs and enforce federal laws. I’m going out on a limb here, but if Congress enacts those laws and programs, isn’t it a tad illogical to turn around and say we can’t collect the data? (See, this is why I’m plagued with headaches.)

Speaking of public burden: I can’t quite grasp how making survey response optional addresses the problem. You see, both Census Bureau testing and Canada’s experience with its first voluntary census long form demonstrated that more households would need to get the ACS in order to overcome a precipitous drop in response rates and maintain a representative sample to produce valid estimates. Seems like more of the public would be burdened. Just sayin’.

I think the Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about response burden seriously. It’s doing a comprehensive review of ACS topics and requiring federal agencies to justify their need for the data under federal law or regulation. The wording of questions can be problematic, too. Would you believe that some, er, younger people don’t know what dial-up Internet connection is? (Geez, I can’t be that old.) And some survey recipients raise a skeptical eyebrow when asked what time they leave the house and return home from work. Yes, commuting flow data are essential for transportation planning at all levels of government, but maybe there’s a way to pose the questions that doesn’t conjure up images of burglars waiting for a chance to strike. I’m happy to report that the Census Bureau is addressing these issues and more before it submits 2020 Census and ACS content and question wording to Congress in 2017 and 2018, respectively, as required by law. (Ummm, yes, Congress has signed off on all of the questions currently in the field.)

We can’t be sure that personal data will remain confidential. You know, we can’t be sure of anything in this world (I know, except taxes and death). We can only consider the record and the odds. Here’s what we do know. The confidentiality safeguards in the Census Act (13 U.S.C. §9, §16, §214) are the strictest on the books. The Census Bureau can’t reveal your individual responses to any other agency or entity, for any purpose — not law enforcement, not legal proceedings (criminal or civil), not tax collection, not even national security — period. Punishment for breaching those protections is steep. The Census Bureau has never, to my knowledge, violated the terms of its authorizing statute.

After census stakeholders raised a collective chorus of objections (again!) to making the ACS a voluntary survey, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cancelled the vote on H.R. 1078. Sometimes, reason prevails.

And sometimes the respite is brief. Another mark-up or an appropriations amendment could be just around the corner. At least we’ll be armed with the facts.

‘Tis the Season (It’s Budget Time Again!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season! Which wouldn’t merit a chuckle except, doesn’t it seem like appropriations season is year-round now? Maybe it’s just me.

This gives me a chance to sound like a broken record – not an enviable trait when I am trying to get your attention. But President Obama has unveiled his budget request for Fiscal Year 2015, and it is my solemn duty as an advocate of all things census to make visions of smartphone-friendly questionnaires, linked government databases and shrinking dollar signs dance in your head.

The Obama Administration requested $1.211 billion dollars for the Census Bureau. That’s a tempting pot of gold for lawmakers looking to fund programs that constituents can see and touch. Research and testing for a statistical exercise five years away? Not so exciting.

Still, the Census Bureau needs every penny of its request to keep 2020 Census planning on track and to maintain a robust, comprehensive and user-friendly American Community Survey (ACS). Let’s break this down, shall we?

The FY2015 proposal is $266 million more than the current year discretionary appropriation of $945 million, a 28 percent increase. (The Census Bureau also receives roughly $30 million for two mandatory surveys.) All of the new money is for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account ($961M requested; +269M increase), which includes the 2020 Census and ongoing ACS ($689M requested; +226M increase).

The window of opportunity for 2020 Census research and testing will close in 2015, when the Census Bureau must select a design framework (a decision already a year behind schedule) and begin the second phase of census planning: operational design and systems development. In a related new initiative, the president requested a bump in funding to build an enterprise-wide integrated system for data collection and processing (Data Processing Systems — $65M requested; +34M increase). Sure would beat having unique systems for each survey and census, don’t you think? And the Census Bureau hopes to resume the Boundary and Annexation Survey, suspended this year due to budget cuts. The results come in handy when you want to put all of those enumerated people and houses in the right city, village or town.

Remember congressional angst over the ACS that led to an embarrassing 2012 House vote to eliminate the survey (with no Plan B as to how the government would function without the data)? The Census Bureau must complete a well-timed, comprehensive review of ACS content and methods next year, ahead of a national field test in 2016 and submission of topics to Congress by April 1, 2017.

The Census Bureau needs money for other programs that have been in congressional crosshairs. The 2012 Economic Census is almost history (FY2015 is the last of its six-year cycle), but as Blood, Sweat, and Tears once sang, what comes down must go up. Or something like that. Anyway, the end of one six-year quinquennial census cycle is the start of a new one; the $119 million request (+5M increase) will allow the Census Bureau to finish analyzing and disseminating 2012 Economic Census data and start planning for the 2017 canvass of American businesses.

Finally, the president is proposing $248 million for the Census Bureau’s second major account, Salaries and Expenses (S&E), a decrease of $4 million from current year funding. The ongoing activities covered under S&E include vital economic, demographic and social statistics collected through the Current Population Survey, Survey of Income and Program Participation, and other programs.

We’ll have more information about the Census Bureau’s plans for 2015 when the Commerce Department releases detailed budget justifications in a week or two. In the meantime, congressional appropriators are getting down to work. The deadline for submitting testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies is March 31; the Senate subcommittee deadline is April 25. Let’s see if we can make the foundation of our democracy and basis of informed decision-making sound as exciting as we know it is.

Putting 2020 Census Innovations to the Test

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The rubber is about to hit the road.

Or, in the parlance of a 21st century census, fingers are about to hit the keyboard. At least that’s what the Census Bureau is hoping when the 2014 Census Site Test kicks off this spring.

Yes, census fans, the first major 2020 Census field test is on the horizon. According to a Dec. 24, 2013, Federal Register notice, 192,500 lucky households in Rockville, Md., and Washington, D.C., will be a laboratory for enumeration strategies and operational innovations that finally could push the decennial count off its 230 year paper-and-pencil foundation.

The Census Bureau is under orders from Congress to keep the cost of the next census down — way down, as in no more than the cost of the 2010 count. So the bureau really wants people to fire up those desktops, or pull out their laptops, tablets or smartphones, and help reduce spending on paper forms, postage, processing and door-knocking census takers. The 2014 test will ask some households to pre-register for the count and indicate their preferred method of contact with the Census Bureau, such as email or cell phone. People can take it upon themselves to answer the census via the Internet or by phone. The bureau will nudge non-responders by email or snail mail, sending paper forms as needed. (We should pause here to contemplate that today’s high tech gadgets and preferred methods of cyber-communication might be considered ancient when 2020 rolls around.)

Holdouts will fall into the nonresponse follow-up universe, historically the most costly census operation. After an unsuccessful attempt to automate door-to-door operations in 2010, the Census Bureau will have field workers test a range of modern devices, including iPhones and iPads, to gather information at the door. Some census-takers will be invited to bring their own device (BYOD) as part of the field test, and the bureau will evaluate using ubiquitous Google Maps, instead of paper maps, to guide enumerators through neighborhoods.

Census managers also will test their adaptive design strategy, a fancy moniker for deciding, in real time, which homes enumerators should contact, in what order and when, how many times, and using a contact method likely to elicit responses. Previously, census takers set out with a list of addresses, made their rounds without guidance, and kept calling and visiting recalcitrant households up to six times before resorting to proxy sources, such as a neighbor, for information.

The Census Bureau will put its toe in the water of a potentially controversial new approach to reducing the follow-up workload: using administrative records — data from government databases and third-party (commercial) sources — to identify vacant housing units and to enumerate households that don’t respond willingly. Given public angst over the NSA and “big data,” I’m waiting to see how Congress and ordinary Americans react to the idea of a massive sharing of personal information, albeit on a one-way street (into the Census Bureau, but not out). I’m worried that substituting administrative data for the real thing will not yield the detailed race and ethnicity data the census requires. And I wonder how grassroots organizers will structure their “be counted” campaigns in the face of “don’t worry, we counted you another way.” But, hey, someone’s got to lose sleep over this stuff!

If you want to weigh in on the 2014 Site Test design, you have until February 24 to submit comments. Oh, and before I forget, a note to the Census Bureau: Could you please send my dad a paper 2020 Census form from the get-go? He doesn’t use a computer or cell phone (he does still have a slide rule, though), but he’ll be 89 and would sure like to make his daughter proud.

Limping Along the Road to 2020

Terri Ann Lowenthalby Terri Ann Lowenthal

So where were we, census fans?

As we rub the sleep out of our post-government shutdown eyes, and revel in data on the re-opened Census Bureau website, we are faced with the prospect that the uphill climb to Census 2020 just got a little steeper. Okay, maybe a whole lot steeper.

Let’s consider the good news first. The federal government is open for business. Surveys are in the field again. Economic indicators are, well, lagging, but the Census Bureau will publish them in due time. Small-city, county, town and neighborhood data from the American Community Survey will be late, but we’ll have them before year’s end.

Now the gloomy news. The federal government is running on last year’s gas tank. That ramp-up in funding to complete decennial census research and testing? Fuhgeddaboudit. With sequestration and across-the-board cuts, the Census Bureau’s budget was already 11 percent below the request for FY2013. That fiscal year has come and gone, but the ghost of budgets past will linger for at least a few more months in the form of a Continuing Resolution that expires on January 15. Not only is there no modest, yet vital, funding boost into the second quarter of FY2014, there is no way to dig out of the 2013 hole yet. Budget uncertainty plus inadequate funding equals increased risk of cut-corners and missed savings opportunities.

What’s at risk? The bureau has already pushed back a critical milestone — to select the 2020 Census design framework — by a year, to the end of FY2015. The National Content Test will be a year late, too, in 2016. That doesn’t leave much time to scrub the results before the legally-required content submission to Congress by April 1, 2017.

Now comes word that the Census Bureau is suspending work on several 2020 research and testing projects. It has “temporarily” reassigned 86 employees to other divisions because the money just isn’t there, and won’t fill a similar number of vacancies for 2020 Census planning unless it gets a sufficient funding boost for FY2014. People, this is not a promising sign of robust progress towards fundamental census reform. Congress can twiddle its thumbs while the fiscal clock ticks away, but the Census Bureau cannot defer the day of reckoning — April 1, 2020.

The Census Director says the agency will be able to complete the most critical 2020 Census activities planned for the current fiscal year. So why am I still tossing and turning at night? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified IT management as a “long-standing” decennial census shortcoming. But thanks to sequestration and other budget cuts, acquisitions and systems development for 2020 will start a year later than planned. Let’s hope the bureau doesn’t have to cut corners when it comes to integrating and perfecting IT and field infrastructure.

Then there are promising strategies for maximizing electronic self-response on the front end and increasing follow-up efficiency on the back end. But is cyber-response the antidote to Congress’s census sticker-shock nightmare? Consider phishing scams, NSA-fueled privacy jitters, and finicky rural Wi-Fi connections before you answer. Can you imagine inviting scores of millions of households to participate online and not fully load-testing the system? Can you say healthcare.gov?

Maybe lawmakers should repeat Cyclical Program Ramp-up 101, before the 2020 Census is back to paper, postage and pencils — for twice the price.

Losing Sleep (While Counting Sheep)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Census stakeholders, my head is spinning with thoughts of 2020 census planning.

Sure, you might think the next census is too far in the future to keep you up at night. (Plus, I bet most of you would rather let me do the worrying.) But let me quote the Census Bureau’s new counter-in-chief, John Thompson, who told a House subcommittee at a September 11 hearing, “budget uncertainty is causing significant concerns for the 2020 census program as we enter that period during which it is crucial to conduct tests so that we can begin applying new technologies and methods … We have already delayed planned research and testing activities to later years … We cannot further delay critical research that will help us make critical design decisions for those systems.”

Let’s stipulate to one shared goal: The 2020 census can’t look like the 2010 census. For one thing, the nation can’t afford the $30 billion price tag of repeating an outdated census design. Equally important, the way we communicate with each other has changed rapidly.

Automation is the buzzword for 2020, but despite the fact that many of us live on our gadgets, a cyber-census (you heard it here first!) isn’t as simple as it might seem. Will data be secure if census-takers bring their own devices (BYOD)? Can we design a questionnaire that people can navigate as easily on a smartphone as on a computer and that works across all operating systems (the ones we use now and the ones that Google, Microsoft and Apple have yet to dream up)? Will people welcome emails, text messages and cell phone calls from the Census Bureau (where did they get my information — from the NSA?)? And what about people who want to respond online without a unique code tying them to a specific address? The challenges are broad and deep.

There could be significant savings (up to $2 billion, the agency says) if the bureau tapped into demographic, housing and geographic information already in the hands of other government agencies. These administrative records could, potentially, eliminate the need for a universal sweep of the nation’s addresses before the census starts; identify vacant homes, to avoid costly follow-up; determine the best days and times to call or visit unresponsive homes; identify households that might have neglected to report every resident; and yes, even to add people to the count without knocking on their door.

But the Census Bureau must work out separate deals with each federal agency and state holding useful records; much of this data-sharing could require changes in federal or state laws. And each dataset has its strengths and weaknesses — Medicaid records, for example, do not have names or street addresses, only social security numbers and birth dates — which could require linking one set of records to another.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the Census Bureau needs money to figure all of this out in time. The bureau can execute a fundamentally redesigned 2020 census for the 2010 census price tag (plus inflation), Director Thompson says. Invest now, save later — that’s the bottom line.

So let’s review where things stand for the fiscal year (FY2014) that begins today. For starters, we can flip the calendar back to FY2013 for a while. The Census Bureau must make do with last year’s funding level, which was 13 percent below its budget request, while Congress figures out how to … ummm … get its act together. Then we hold our breath while lawmakers decide whether to slide backwards another $45 million (courtesy of House appropriators; H.R. 2787), give the agency most of what it needs (thanks to far-sighted Senate appropriators; S. 1329), or settle on some amount in between.

The census is a 10-year process, a cyclical activity that starts small and builds to the grand finale of enumerating every household in a vast, diverse nation. There is a ramp-up to that denouement, one that starts modestly and escalates as we hurtle towards the “zero” year. But the direction, once planning starts, has to be up.

Wikipedia describes a “ramp up” as the period between product development, and maximum capacity utilization, characterized by product and process experimentation and improvements. Sounds like a logical business practice, right? (Think of the time and investment in research it takes to bring new prescription drugs to the market.) You would think lawmakers would want the Census Bureau to operate like an efficient corporation. But long-term fiscal planning isn’t Congress’ strong suit, now, is it?

The Census Bureau needs $245 million in FY2014 to keep 2020 census planning on track; the House bill cuts that amount by more than a third ($91 million). Already delayed by a year are all of the tests scheduled for this year and next; some tests have been cancelled. The bureau has pushed back the field test of the 2020 Census form to FY2016, which is getting uncomfortably close to the April 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, deadlines for submitting topics and questions, respectively, to Congress. Perhaps most troubling, the Census Bureau won’t nail down a design framework until late FY2015, a year behind schedule, leaving less time to develop systems and operations.

Did I mention that the next census starts in less than six years? The Census Bureau can do a lot of things, but it cannot stop the clock. I bet Director Thompson is having a few sleepless nights, too.

Slip Sliding Away: The Risk Factor Goes Up As 2020 Census Funding Goes Down

Editor’s note: This blog post was revised on July 11 to reflect more detailed information released by the Appropriations Committee.

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

I’m starting this blog post with one of my famous census headaches.

That’s because House appropriators are driving the wrong way — downhill and backwards — on the up ramp to Census 2020. I see a collision in the not too distant future: Congress doesn’t want to pay a lot for the next census, but it won’t put gas in the tank to keep the Census Bureau from stalling on the road to achieving that goal.

The Census Bureau is trying to wrap up its research and testing phase for 2020. Fundamental reforms in methodology and technology are on the table as the agency strives to curtail the big-ticket enumeration items, especially universal canvassing to confirm the address list and reliance on paper forms for every household in the nation. The bureau had hoped to select a design framework in 2014 so it could move forward with operational and systems development; now that’s not going to happen until 2015.

This year (FY2013), lawmakers cut the bureau’s budget request by 11 percent (more if you count another sneaky transfer of money from the Working Capital Fund). And now the House Appropriations Committee is taking another whack at the budget for Fiscal Year 2014; the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee allocated just $845 million in its “committee mark” today, $44 million less than current year funding. The president requested $982 million, only a hair over his request for FY2013. That’s a cut of $137 million, or 14 percent, in discretionary spending.

Talk about rolling backwards down the hill… can I have another Excedrin, please?

Call me crazy (maybe it’s just the pulsing in my temples), but it almost looks like Congress has decided we really don’t need to plan for the next constitutionally prescribed decennial census — coming to a neighborhood near you in less than seven years. The Census Bureau can just envision ways to cut the cost of counting, cross its fingers, and hope for the best.

Field tests scheduled for 2013? A 28 percent funding cut forced the Census Bureau to cancel some and delay others, including key tests of strategies to encourage and facilitate electronic response in ways that preserve public confidence and ensure data security. An Internet response option could save big bucks during the census, but the methodology is far from simple. Do you send a letter to each household first, with a unique code for answering online, or could people somehow “pre-register” to receive a code for online participation? Should you mail a questionnaire if a household doesn’t answer online by a certain date, or just send an enumerator to the door? Would Americans welcome or reject text messages and emails from the Census Bureau, urging them to be counted, and how can everyone avoid the inevitable phishing schemes from false census.gov addresses (I’ve received two myself already)? I can’t answer these questions, and neither can the Census Bureau without thorough evaluation.

Possible changes to census questions? The American Community Survey is a cost-effective test-bed for proposed revisions, but the 2013 funding shortfall will push back a key content test from 2015 to 2016, which — in my opinion — is getting too close for comfort to the statutory April 1, 2017, deadline for submitting census topics to Congress.

The Census Bureau has made the hard choices for 2013: moving some research from the field to a desk; pushing back deadlines; reevaluating projects planned for next year. It is moving forward, for now, with research into a potentially big money-saver: using administrative records to identify possible undercounts and add people who might be missed during the census. But with the National Security Agency data mining program looming large in the American consciousness, that research must be thorough and robust before the Census Bureau can even hope for buy-in from lawmakers and the public. Important research into public trust and confidentiality concerns has been pushed back already. Without a funding increase in 2014, the agency won’t even be able to cover its staffing costs.

The risk of an unacceptably costly or unacceptably inaccurate census, or both, continues to go up as Congress continues to squeeze the Census Bureau’s budget during the critical research, testing and development phases of our decennial enumeration. The census is a 10-year program. Congress can invest in planning now, to keep the life-cycle cost of the enumeration in check ($13 – $18 billion, depending on the design, according to independent auditors), or keep letting the car roll backward — and dig itself out of a census ditch for $30 billion in a few short years.

The Cycle of Life, Part Two: Time to Ramp It Up

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I gave a little tutorial on the lifecycle cost of a decennial census. You know: “The seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.” Up and down are the operative words; right now, the cycle is in up mode. Meaning the Census Bureau needs modest funding increases each year to stay on an efficient, productive research and planning schedule that will save billions of dollars in implementation costs over the entire lifecycle.

Did I just date myself terribly? (“Like” if you remember that song!) But, I digress. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 (FY2014) $982.5 million budget request for the Census Bureau barely budged over his request for the current year. Embedded in that overall agency number is $486 million for the 2020 Census, which includes the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS is really a bargain, folks. Its $242 million price tag is an infinitesimal half a thousandth of a percent of the federal aid directed prudently (Congress enacts the formulas, after all) each year to states and localities for schools, roads and transit systems, rural economic development projects, health care, job training, crime prevention programs, and other state and local activities, based (directly or indirectly) on data the ACS yields annually. Businesses and community-based nonprofits use the data to make billions (and billions and billions) of dollars in investment and program decisions that spur job growth, commerce and economic development. And the survey is now a two-for-one deal: it’s a rolling test bed for new methods and systems that could reduce 2020 Census costs considerably.

Speaking of 2020 (just around the corner… see my last blog post!), the president requested an increase of $154.2 million to finish the research and testing phase, allowing the Census Bureau to select a design framework and move forward with operational and systems development in subsequent years. Key elements of census reform could include broad use of administrative records to keep the address list up-to-date and to identify unresponsive households during the enumeration, as well as multi-mode response options that take advantage of the latest tech gadgets. Without thorough research and testing, the bureau might fall back on a far more expensive (but tried and true) paper and pencil design. Which Congress already has said it won’t pay for, by the way.

As Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser warned Senate and House appropriators this week, “To achieve cost savings, the Bureau is exploring new and innovative design alternatives based on evidence from its research and testing operations. However, the Bureau may be seeing signs of delays due to budget reductions and schedule slippage in its 2010 decennial census evaluation program and the 2020 decennial research and testing program.”

The problem, in other words, is that the Census Bureau already is positioned fiscally to fall behind, because Congress whacked about 13 percent from its 2020 Census budget request for the current year, what with sequestration and across-the-board cuts. The bureau will need its full FY2014 request of $244.8 million for 2020 Census planning just to stay on top of things.

So here we are, once again, facing an uphill battle for a reasonable investment in two of the nation’s premier statistical programs, both of which return far more to a democracy and informed decision-making than they will ever cost. Time to buckle down, census stakeholders, and fight the good (if often unrecognized) fight!