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Census has just a month to complete its count and the Government Accountability Office says it still faces significant challenges in collecting accurate data.
The Census Bureau’s late decision to push up the deadline to complete its decennial count has heightened the risk of inaccuracies, according to a new report, which found the agency is struggling to retain employees, ensure its technology functions properly and otherwise adapt to shorter timeframes for each step of its operations.
After delaying the start of its operations due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Census said it would push back the delivery of data into April 2021. The bureau never received permission from Congress for the change, however, and now plans to meet its statutory deadline of Dec. 31, 2020. That forced Census to revise its deadline to finish collecting responses from Oct. 31 up to Sept. 30. The agency will now have just three months to process data for apportionment, instead of its normal five.
In July when asked about meeting the Dec. 31 deadline, Al Fontenot, associate director for decennial census programs, said, “We are past the window of being able to get those counts by those dates at this point.”
Census will now have just 53 days to complete its non-response follow-up operation in which enumerators knock on doors of households that have yet to fill out their forms, compared to the 80 days for which the bureau had originally prepared and the 84 days in its initial COVID-19 plan. That marks a 34% reduction. The Government Accountability Office said in its report the faster turnaround time to deliver results of the count will put data quality at risk, an issue it said was exacerbated by President Trump's decision to require Census to weed out non-citizens without legal residence in the United States from its apportionment data.
The current 63.4% self-response rate has exceeded the bureau’s goal of 60.5%. The success has varied across the country, however, and GAO identified 16 counties in which the response rate sits below 20%.
While Census officials have repeatedly stated they had met their hiring goals and had far more applicants than they would need, the bureau is now struggling to adequately staff up. The bureau says it requires 435,000 enumerators to complete its compressed count, but as of Aug. 18 had onboarded just 309,000. That gap is largely due to more employees dropping out of the enumerator workforce than Census had anticipated, GAO found. It had expected about 10% of workers that had started training would fail to show up for actual door knocking, but that rate has ballooned to 35%. Training has also become difficult, managers told GAO, as local offices must bring employees in on shifts and additional facilities are currently harder to find.
A recent Commerce Department inspector general report found in addition to those not showing up, employees have dropped out because delays forced them to find other jobs and due to issues during background checks.
Census officials said they plan to continue recruiting and hiring enumerators, though the bureau has just more than a month until it will wrap up its non-response follow up operations. They also said they will offer incentive pay to employees who maximize productivity and hours worked.
GAO also warned that Census’ IT systems pose risks and could cause cost overruns or missed deadlines. In one case, six area offices could temporarily not conduct training as software did not perform as expected. The compressed schedule has exacerbated risks, the auditors said, as it could lead to more stress on Census systems than anticipated.
“Due to the complexity of [non-response follow up], significant risks remain regarding how the systems will perform,” GAO said.
Census maintains a dozen systems to process data, but is running behind schedule on testing them. That testing was originally scheduled for June, but is now set to take place in October.
“Going forward, it will be important that the bureau complete all remaining system and operational testing for the response processing operation as expeditiously as possible to better ensure that its systems are ready to complete this operation under compressed timeframes,” GAO said. “If the bureau does not complete all required testing, it may face an increased number of system defects or other issues after it deploys the response processing operation, which could affect the quality and accuracy of the census count.”
GAO also cautioned that individuals may be less likely to answer the door and speak to enumerators as a result of the pandemic, and workers will have less time for additional follow ups. Census has procured millions of pieces of personal protective equipment for employees and instituted new procedures to maximize physical distancing during door knocking. Managers told GAO they were generally satisfied with those efforts.
Eric Katz is a senior correspondent at Government Executive.