GAO: Census Bureau making progress on field tests for 2020 decennial

Wednesday - 11/27/2013, 12:58pm EST

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues, GAO

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The year 2020 is already right around the corner at the Census Bureau. The agency is in its early testing phase for gathering data, and the Government Accountability Office is on hand to make sure the decennial count goes off without a hitch.

Robert Goldenkoff, GAO's director of strategic issues, told In Depth with Francis Rose Monday the Census Bureau is doing a complete makeover of how it will conduct the 2020 decennial. In an effort to control costs, the agency is rethinking how it tests census-taking methods.

"What the Census Bureau is doing differently compared to previous decennials is that it's conducting more frequent but smaller field tests," he said. "Prior decennials, they did some very expensive but only a handful of field tests. That was sometimes problematic, because if any changes needed to take place, the bureau didn't have enough time to make those changes and then test them."

GAO identified 25 key practices for a sound research plan after reviewing the program evaluation literature. It also issued a report that offered six lessons based on three early tests the bureau conducted in 2012 and 2013.

"We grouped them into six buckets or themes, if you will," Goldenkoff said. "Things like developing a strong research design, a sound data-collection plan. But, I think it's important that no one practice is more important than the other. They need to be taken as a package and that's something that the bureau needs to consider as it plans future designs. It's almost like building a house. If you want to build a sturdy house, the wood is just as important as the nails, which are just as important as the insulation. You need to take everything in conjunction with one another."

GAO's report includes a chart that breaks down how well the Census Bureau followed the six key practices during the three tests.

"For that 2012 test, the National Census test, which was looking at response rates for different contact strategies, they actually did not follow at all 11 of those 25 practices," Goldenkoff said. "And then, for the other two tests, the Census Bureau generally or partially followed virtually all of the practices, so things are definitely getting better."

In its report, GAO made three recommendations for the Census Bureau:

  • Restructuring and reorganizing the management of the census test — "It'll be critical for the bureau to develop timeframes and milestones for those revisions," Goldenkoff said.

  • Better documenting the lessons learned in designing the initial field tests — "The bureau knows what they are," he said. "They've started to implement many of them, but until they document them in some fashion, these lessons learned can get lost."

  • Finalizing revisions to the field test management in the team leader handbook.

Another key lesson, according to Goldenkoff, is how important it is to obtain early management buy-in on test objectives, as well as the scope and methodology of the tests.

"What we found was that test designers didn't always involve senior management in these decisions, and that could lead to unexpected late changes or last minute delays in the testing," he said. "So, getting that buy-in up front was critical."

The Census Bureau is also looking at what lessons it can learn from the 2010 decennial, when the bureau had trouble incorporating a new mobile device to conduct field testing.

"One of the key lessons learned from the 2010 test program was the importance of testing decennial operations in concert with one another and also making sure that they actually mirrored the actual census," Goldenkoff said. "Going forward, the bureau is planning to do that, but the key twist is that it's going to be a little bit more nimble. For example, one of the last tests that the Census conducted was something called a dress rehearsal in 2008. The bureau found that there were some issues with those mobile devices, but it didn't have enough time to test new devices or a new approach."

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