Census' Tech Use Could Slash Cost of 2020 Count by Nearly Half

Gil C/Shutterstock.com

The only way Commerce can make good on its promise is through the intelligence use of technology, said CIO Steve Cooper.

The 2010 United States Census cost more than $13 billion, or approximately $96 per household. If the Census Bureau uses the 2010 model for the next decennial headcount in 2020, government watchdogs fear the total price tag could approach $30 billion.

In February, members of Congress made it clear to officials at the Commerce Department, which houses Census and 11 other agencies, that the government can’t afford to spend even another $13 billion on the 2020 Census.

Commerce officials actually promised to reduce spending on the Constitutionally-mandated decennial census by $5 billion, according to Steve Cooper, Commerce's chief information officer.

Speaking April 1 at a Washington, D.C., event, Cooper said the only way Commerce can make good on its promise to cut costs is through the intelligent use of technology. All told, Cooper said the agency plans to cut the cost of the upcoming effort -- which typically involves hiring hundreds of thousands of temporary employees to make calls and knock on doors -- by 50 percent.

“Would any of you guys sign up for a 50-percent reduction in any programs you are running today?” Cooper asked the audience. “In our infinite wisdom, we did, and now we have to deliver."

Still, the agency faces challenges. The first, Cooper said, is making better use of the Internet. Eighty-three percent of Americans carry a cellular device, so using the digital platform is a relatively obvious one. The Census Bureau is currently testing new online surveys in municipalities across the country that should help shape how Census uses the Internet for the 2020 Census.

The second challenge, he said, is ensuring everyone gets counted and “tying a person to an address,” including hard-to-count groups and those who aren’t technologically up to speed.

Census will use paper-based survey options that tie individuals to household IDs. But details still need to be worked out. Cooper said the Commerce Department has talked with agencies like the U.S. Postal Service that contain large sources of administrative records that could be mined by Census personnel and could significantly reduce the temporary workforce required to follow-up with those who don’t respond right away to Census surveys.

Other agencies with a big administrative footprint, like the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security Administration, are also potential partners.

But Cooper explained that harnessing “walled-off” information contained by other agencies is legally complicated.

For example, Cooper said if he was found negligent in dispersing sensitive data sets collected by agencies within the Commerce Department, he could be fined $250,000 and jailed for 10 years. Other agencies have varying penalties for similar negligence.

Freeing data isn’t as simple as buying a piece of technology or hiring a team, it requires extensive legal consultation, policy changes and potentially congressional involvement.

“The use of administrative records is very complex because their data is walled off, just like ours,” Cooper said.

(Image via Gil C/ Shutterstock.com)