Better Late Than Never? Inching Our Way To A 2014 Census Budget

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Breaking news: Republicans and Democrats in Congress have finally agreed upon something! That would be a budget blueprint for the current (FY2014) and next (FY2015) fiscal years, joyfully named the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

So, what does this agreement mean for Census Bureau funding, everyone breathlessly asks me? Uh, how the heck should I know? Seriously, though, the holiday respite from partisan gridlock is just the start of the overdue funding process for fiscal year 2014, whose clock started ticking on October 1. The Census Bureau, like most federal agencies, has been making do with last year’s funding level, squeezed as that was by sequestration and across-the-board spending cuts. And then there’s the uncertainty of not knowing how much you’ll be able to spend this year — sort of like figuring out how much you can afford to spend on holiday gifts when your boss won’t tell you what your annual salary will be until two months after Christmas.

Did I mention the two-week government shutdown, occurring just when a 2020 Census field test was supposed to start in Philadelphia?

Anyway, the reason I’m still in the dark is that appropriators now must negotiate final spending bills for FY2014, within budget agreement parameters. The current temporary funding measure (at FY2013 levels) runs out on January 15, but when you’re already more than three months late, heck, a deadline is just… well, whatever.

To their credit, House and Senate appropriators passed their respective versions of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bills (H.R. 2787/S. 1329) earlier this year. The Senate committee — while issuing stern warnings about census costs, and planning and budget transparency (S. Rpt. 113-78) — generously allocated the president’s request of $982.5 million for the Census Bureau. Its House counterpart — apparently confusing the cyclical census up ramp with the down ramp — doled out $844.7 million, $44.5 million below FY2013 funding. The final number will lie somewhere between those markedly (and remarkably) divergent visions of how best to plan for a census.

The budget deal sets a $1.012 trillion cap on discretionary (that is, non-mandatory) spending, sort of splitting the difference between the House- and Senate-passed budget ceilings. Essentially, it restores almost two-thirds of the non-defense sequestration cuts that would have taken effect in FY2014, absent the bipartisan hug. Appropriators, who have a little more wiggle room absent full sequestration, will decide who gets how much of the discretionary pie. Let’s wish upon a Christmas star for an early reprieve in the new year.

It’s time to hit the gas and head up the ramp a little faster. Thorough, on-time research and testing of significant reforms to the census process, and a robust American Community Survey (which also serves as a test-bed for the 2020 Census), are riding on the outcome.

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.

Somebody Call A Tow Truck!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last blog post, I lamented a looming “collision” as U.S. House appropriators kept driving the wrong way – downhill and backwards – on the up ramp to the 2020 census, slashing the Census Bureau’s FY2014 budget request by $120+ million, which would leave the agency with $44.5 million less than its inadequate FY2013 budget. Without early investment in census research, testing and development, Congress could be spending a fortune to pull the 2020 headcount out of a ditch in a few short years.

Fortunately, the Senate has dispatched the highway patrol!

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill (S. 1329), allocating the full amount the Obama Administration requested for the Census Bureau: $982.5 million. Sure, the committee once again dipped into the agency’s Working Capital Fund to get to that level, but the $10 million grab is small compared to previous raids on the WCF, and I will not look a gift horse in the mouth today. (See my Feb. 27, 2012, post for a quick tutorial on the WCF.)

I think Senate lawmakers are starting to grasp the long-range picture. The committee’s explanatory report (Senate Rpt. 113-78) says the budget request “suggests that the Census Bureau intends to reduce the 2020 Census costs to 2010 Census levels by finding ways to reduce door-to-door operations, using the Internet to solicit responses, and using scalable technology, such as elastic agency-wide IT systems that can expand for the 2020 Census and then return to normal operations tempo.” The committee wistfully mentions the possibility of spending less than the 2000 census, without adjusting for inflation, but we can forgive this momentary lapse in sanity, although it clearly yearns for yesteryear with later references to spending “less than the 2010 census” in 2020. Nevertheless, Senators seem to understand that the bureau can’t get from point A to point B, and accomplish the significant reforms Congress is seeking, without an investment in the groundwork that needs to be done.

House appropriators, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it, too. Their $153.5 million allocation for 2020 Census planning — $91 million below the president’s request — “underscores the Committee’s views that research and testing efforts are vital to ensuring that the 2020 Census is the most accurate and cost effective decennial yet.” We just don’t want to pay for those efforts. The committee asked for a schedule of all work “critical to the success of the 2020 Decennial Census,” including the cost of each activity “to better account for the cost effects of possible schedule slippage.” And then we’ll take you to task for falling behind schedule, even though we haven’t given you enough money to stay on track. The funding chiefs also want the agency to create shared and reusable IT services (“as a way to economize”!), continue developing a mobile computing infrastructure, implement a comprehensive information security program in accordance with in-depth GAO recommendations, and consult with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure compliance with security standards. And please figure out how to do all of this vital work even though we cut your requested budget by nearly 40 percent. If the House has its way, Congress is going to need a super-size tow truck! (The House Commerce funding bill allocates $225 million for the American Community Survey — the most cost effective test-bed available for the 2020 census — $17 million less than the administration’s request.)

Will lawmakers beat the fiscal year clock to enact a final Commerce spending bill by midnight on September 30? Let’s consider: the House will be in session 17 more days until the FY2013 coach turns into a pumpkin; the Senate will be in session 26 days. Ummm… I think I see a temporary spending resolution in my crystal ball, which could leave the Census Bureau spinning its wheels in a ditch for a while longer (at the paltry current year funding levels), while the House and Senate try to come to grips collectively with the concept of ramping up for the nation’s largest peacetime undertaking.

Note: The House FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill and report numbers are not available as of this writing, but both documents are available on the House Appropriations Committee website.

O, Canada! More Lessons From North of the Border

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I looked to our northern neighbor to see what lessons we might learn from Canada’s experience with a first-ever voluntary household survey to gather socio-economic data on all communities — data that are used, directly or indirectly, to guide much of public and private sector decision-making. The National Household Survey replaced the mandatory census “long form” after conservative leaders balked at the perceived invasion of privacy and governmental overreach. The result: Increased burden on the public (due to a larger sample size to compensate for falling response rates), increased costs, and no reliable data for a quarter of the country’s localities. This is not an outcome I’d wish upon our venerable democracy.

Canada also takes a census of population, with mandatory response, every five years. In 2011, Canadians answered 10 census questions, compared to the six Americans answered in the 2010 enumeration. Canada first offered the option of answering the census online in 2006; almost a fifth of Canadians did so, leading Statistics Canada (StatCan) to nudge 60 percent of households, via advance letter, to respond on the Internet in 2011. The remaining households received paper questionnaires in the mail or by hand (enumerator drop-off), similar to modified methods used here in rural and remote areas.

Internet response is a money-saver; there’s no scanning and data capture required, as StatCan points out on its website, and there are fewer missing (item non-response) or erroneous answers (yes, some people put down an age and birth date that don’t match, for example!). The U.S. Census Bureau is following suit, using the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) as a rolling test-bed for Internet response in the 2020 Census. Half of households in the monthly ACS sample (the option became available in January) are ditching the paper form and submitting information online. A promising start, for sure, but the jury is still out on savings ($4 – $5 million a year, the bureau estimates), as more people call the telephone assistance lines for help. And electronic filing of census forms is not a silver bullet. People in low-income households and rural areas are less likely to have broadband access, and there are phishing scams and other data security issues to address. (I received two emails last week purporting to come from a address. Can’t fool me, but how many others might easily be scammed?)

In 2006, StatCan introduced another operational upgrade to decrease public burden: It asked people for permission to access their tax files for relevant information. Using administrative records is a key part of potential reforms for the U.S. census in 2020, but extensive research is required to overcome considerable hurdles, such as laws that prohibit sharing of personal information between agencies, the need to put people at a physical address (you can’t live in a post office box or with parents who claim you on their tax form if you’re in college), and missing demographic information such as race, age and gender in many databases. And we need to understand how Americans will view this sort of data-sharing — as a smart use of existing information or an example of big brother run amok?

My point here is that there are promising reforms for the 2020 Census, but the Census Bureau needs time and money to vet new methods thoroughly. Congress wants the next count to cost less — a lot less! — yet it is reluctant to invest adequate funds in research, testing and operational development now, so the Census Bureau can realize the significant (billions of dollars!) savings these new techniques will yield down the road, when the bureau starts the enumeration.

President Obama proposed a $983 million budget for the Census Bureau in fiscal year 2014, a small increase over his request for 2013. $245 million of that amount is for 2020 Census planning; another $242 million pays for the ACS, a vital factor in cost-effective 2020 testing. But sequestration and budget cuts set the agency back 11 percent this year, making the funding leap from one year to the next much larger than it should be. Congress needs to get its mind around the concept of ramping up for this uniquely cyclical federal undertaking soon, if it truly wants to see fundamental changes in the way we conduct this nation’s largest peacetime activity and still ensure an accurate count.

The Cycle of Life: Pay Now Or Pay Later

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri 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.