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Envisioning the 2020 Census

13 May 2010 1,918 views No Comment

New U.S. Census Bureau Autonomy Bill

From left: Former Census Directors Martha Farnsworth Riche and Vincent P. Barabba stand beside Congressman Charlie Dent and Senator Tom Carper during the introduction to the bill “Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act of 2010.” Seven former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau, including both Republicans and Democrats, have endorsed the bill.


Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Congressman Charlie Dent, Senator Tom Carper and Senator Tom Coburn have introduced the bill “Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act of 2010” or H.R. 4945/S. 3167, which would make the U.S. Census Bureau more autonomous and make its director’s term a fixed, five-year appointment. Maloney had introduced a more aggressive version of this bill earlier in this Congress and in the previous Congress. Those bills, endorsed by the ASA Board of Directors, would have made the bureau an independent establishment.

    H.R. 4945/S. 3167 keeps the Census Bureau within the Department of Commerce but would have the director report directly to the Secretary of Commerce, provide the director more latitude in communicating with Congress, and grant the director more authority over the Census Bureau personnel and operations.

    Toward a New Vision

    To escape the pattern of incremental and often unfocused R&D for the next census, which leads to escalating costs with diminishing returns on quality, the Census Bureau will need to overhaul its approach for planning the 2020 census. Our panel urged the Census Bureau to motivate its R&D efforts by setting a clear and publicly announced goal of reducing the inflation-adjusted per-housing-unit cost to that of the 2000 census (subtracting the cost of the 2000 census long-form sample), while holding coverage errors (appropriately defined) to approximately the 2000 levels. Such a goal would recognize that an increase in real dollar-per-housing-unit cost for 2020 over 2010 would be unjustified in comparison with the experience of other developed nations and unacceptable in a time of fiscal imbalance.

    Our panel also urged the Census Bureau to immediately develop a limited number of strategic visions for the 2020 census that are likely to meet its announced goals for costs and quality. By strategic visions we mean start-to-finish strategies for conducting all major census operations in order to confront looming threats and implement new technologies. Priorities for evaluations of the 2010 census and for experiments and tests in the 2011–2018 period should be set to enable the 2020 census R&D program to investigate a handful of research questions whose resolution will determine which of the visions of the next census are feasible and cost effective and which are not.

    All involved, including Congress and the administration, need to recognize that a modernized census with substantial cost savings in 2020 can be achieved only through effective research and planning over the course of the 2010–2020 decade. Therefore, all involved need to fund and pursue research efforts commensurately.

    From Here to There

    In the past, the U.S. Census Bureau led the world in goal-oriented R&D for continuous improvement of its censuses and surveys. The fruits of that R&D included such pathbreaking achievements as the use of probability sampling in censuses and surveys; computerized processing of census returns; mailout-mailback enumeration; the use of dual systems estimation for census coverage measurement; the TIGER geographic coding and mapping system; and the design and implementation of the ACS as a replacement for the census long-form sample.

    Yet over the past two or three decades, the cumulative effects of actions and inactions—on the part not only of the Census Bureau, but also of the Department of Commerce and Congress—have led to this situation: R&D for the decennial census and other programs too often is limited to incremental improvements in existing systems; is executed without using best practices for the design of experiments and tests; expends scarce resources on testing factors that are already well established in the literature while neglecting to test factors that are unique to the scope and scale of the census or another program; is fragmented organizationally; is not well integrated with operations; is not considered a key driver of future directions or new operational procedures; and lacks resources commensurate with needs.

    To make possible a truly focused R&D program for 2020 census planning, the Census Bureau will need to take immediate steps to develop the necessary tools for effective planning and evaluation. These tools include an improved, transparent cost model of census operations and well-documented data from all 2010 census operations in formats suitable for research and evaluation. The Census Bureau will also need to take immediate steps to revitalize its research infrastructure. These steps include a thorough assessment of the Census Bureau’s posture toward R&D compared with other data collection organizations and the development of means for research to break out of existing organizational “silos.”

    Our panel recommended that the Census Bureau should comprehensively review the R&D practices and organization of other national statistics offices and survey organizations in academia and the private sector, with the goal of modernizing and strengthening the bureau’s own R&D program. Necessary steps also include re-establishing a position such as that of associate director of methodology and standards; reestablishing a strong Center for Survey Methods under a centrally influential associate director; integrating research across programs and with operational planning; integrating census and ACS research; and renewing and refreshing mechanisms for obtaining outside expert advice.

    Positive Steps

    We are heartened by the positive reaction of the Census Bureau to our panel’s report and by the concrete steps that the Census Bureau is taking to begin 2020 census planning now, with the development of a small number of visions of alternative ways of conducting the census and plans for R&D beginning in 2011–2012. R&D focused on these alternatives could lead to more cost-effective ways of updating the Master Address File (to the benefit of the ACS and other household surveys in addition to the census); the strategic use of the Internet and other response modes to save paper and improve data quality; the possible use of administrative records in nonresponse follow-up operations; and the full implementation of hand-held technology for a “paperless” census.

    Constance F. Citro and Daniel L. Cork contributed to this article.

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