By Terri Ann Lowenthal
Probably makes you contemplate caterpillars and butterflies as spring blossoms start to appear. Or, maybe babies and grandparents; The Lion King.
Me? As usual, I’m wringing my hands about the lifecycle of a census. The planning, preparation, promotion, implementation, numbers crunching. The census lifecycle goes up and it goes down — and then up again — but there is no plateau.
Research and test; develop methodology, operational plans and systems; prepare to launch; execute; tabulate and publish data. Repeat every 10 (the constitutionally required decennial census) or five (the legally required Economic Census and Census of Governments) years.
2020 seems light-years away. But consider the following:
- A mere seven years from now, census forms will be in the mail (or online or your smartphone or whatever latest gadget I’ll be too old to master).
- In six years, field workers will be canvassing the nation’s streets, rural roads and remote dirt lanes to be sure all addresses are in the system.
- Just five years down the road, the Census Bureau will submit the 2020 Census questionnaire to Congress; in four, it will send lawmakers the topics it will include on the form — both submissions are required by law.
- In three years, Census staff will be mired in final, targeted research and testing of the 2020 design (using the American Community Survey, if lawmakers haven’t pulled the plug, as a primary cost-effective test-bed), operations development, and complex IT systems testing.
- Next year (that’s 2014, folks), the agency will choose the basic design for the 2020 population count.
My, my… where does the time go?
Here’s the rub: there is little flexibility in the lifecycle; no “down time” to push back decision-making; no “give” in the schedule without risky and often costly delays down the road. Census planning and preparation are up against two immutable deadlilnes: Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, and a codified census date — April 1, 2020.
There’s no putting it off. There are no do-overs. The Census Bureau has to get it right the first time, on time.
Let’s stipulate that putting the 2020 Census on a 2010 Census design path will cost too much money — $30 billion, according to government agency watchdogs. That’s why major design changes are in the works now. By the end of next year, the Census Bureau must have a framework for 2020 that will allow development and thorough testing of multi-mode response options (but my dad, who will then be 88, will still fill out his paper questionnaire, I promise!), IT platforms to support appropriate use of existing data sources (also known as administrative records), evolving communications strategies to reach a diverse (age, race and ethnicity, type of community, language) population, and streamlined field operations overseen by six, not the previous 12, regional offices. Investing now in this essential planning will yield a census lifecycle cost of $13 – $18 billion, depending on the design chosen. Hey, now we’re talking real savings!
It all seems like a logical means to a rational end, except Congress doesn’t seem to get this lifecycle thing yet. For the current fiscal year (2013), the president had requested $970.4 million for the Census Bureau, including $711.3 million for the account covering the 2020 Census and ACS. The House slashed $75.6 million from the 2020 Census planning pot in its first stab (and I do mean that figuratively and literally) at the Commerce Department funding bill last May, even deciding to axe the ACS altogether. The Senate was more generous in its first go-round, although it couldn’t resist dipping into the Working Capital Fund again to come up with the money. But as Congress struggled (and struggled) to avoid sequestration (unsuccessfully) and then enact a final funding measure as the fiscal year clock ticked away, the Census Bureau lost a few tens of millions here and a few tens of millions there — and before you could say “prudent investment,” the need for a modest budget ramp up of 3 percent had become a budget cut of roughly $126 million, or 13 percent.
The hapless 2012 Economic Census — you know, the one that yields little secrets, like how well the economy is doing — really took it on the chin. FY2013 is the peak year in its short five-year lifecycle; now there’s not enough money to produce key economic data on time. The administration requested an exception from forced spending cuts, probably figuring it might be nice to know about payrolls, business investment and industry competitiveness when economic recovery is front and center, but Congress wouldn’t go along. Another likely casualty is the Survey of Business Owners, an add-on to the quinquennial (I love that word!) Economic Census which produces the only information on women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses. We’re not just cutting budgets anymore; we’re losing information that helps us spend the money we do have wisely.
Tomorrow the president will unveil his budget request for FY2014. And it seems to me that Congress has a choice: it can pay now, to reduce total census costs conceivably by half — or it can pay later. More; much, much more.