Commerce Department IG Alert to Deleterious Consequences from Accelerated 2020 Census Timetable

In reviewing “the circumstances surrounding the accelerated 2020 Census schedule,” the Commerce Department’s Inspector General (IG) has found that the decision to rush the completion of the 2020 Census “was not made by the Census Bureau” and that the “accelerated schedule increases the risks to obtaining a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

A new IG report, “The Acceleration of the Census Schedule Increases the Risks to a Complete and Accurate 2020 Census,” (No. OIG-20-050-M) explained that “to produce a quality 2020 Census, both the data collection and data processing components are critical,” and both risk being shortchanged by an accelerated timetable.

Under the rushed schedule, time allowed for non-response follow-up (NRFU) was reduced “from approximately 80 days to approximately 56 days. Other changes to data collection included reducing certain contact attempts from six to one, such as contact attempts to housing units with conflicting information.” Census Bureau staff told the IG “that the largest risk to data collection posed by the accelerated plan was the decreased time to recover from possible external contingencies affecting local areas or regions. As one senior official put it, there is no ‘time to spare in the operations anymore.’” Beyond risks from exogenous events, like natural disasters, the Census Bureau now lacks any “‘runway’ of time to correct discovered errors through re-enumeration, as was necessary in the field portion of the 2010 and 2000 Censuses.”

The Census Bureau “determined that to meet the December 31, 2020, deadline,” as requested by the Commerce Department, “data processing must begin October 1, 2020. That, in turn, shortened the time that the Bureau had to process the data from 150 days to 90 days.”

Senior Census Bureau staff “identified several risks in the data processing phase,” including that: (1) “the processing time has been so compressed that if an error is found, and a program needs to be started again, the Bureau may not be able to do so and still meet the December 31, 2020, statutory deadline”; and (2) “certain planned data processing reviews have been shortened or removed entirely.”

The IG noted that even top staff at the Census Bureau, “including the Director, did not know who ultimately made the decision to accelerate the Census schedule,” so the IG report can’t identify who made the decision. “However, Bureau officials confirmed that the decision was not the Bureau’s.”

This new IG report comes hard on the heels of another IG report, released last week, which examined the Census bureau’s “quality control processes” designed “to ensure that enumerators follow procedures when conducting interviews with households.” It warned that “failure to adhere to quality control processes increases the risk of data inaccuracy,” and “that ACO supervisors are not resolving alerts within the 3-day timeframe established to minimize the number of enumerator actions that do not follow procedures.” (See “Delays to Resolving Alerts Limit the Bureau’s Ability to Maintain or Improve the Quality of 2020 Census Data Final Memorandum.” No. OIG-20-048-M. September 17, 2020.)