GAO Questions Cost of 2020 Census Internet Response Plan

$73 Million May Not Get the Job Done, Watchdog Reports

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GAO Questions Cost of 2020 Census Online Response Plan. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While being able to fill out your 2020 census form by visiting a Web site might sound like fun, the joyless but vigilant watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have doubts about how much the idea will actually cost taxpayers. 

The Census Bureau has estimated that pulling off the Internet response plan will cost taxpayers about $73 million, but according to the GAO’s report, that estimate is “not reliable,” and the whole idea faces some difficult “challenges.”

According to the GAO, the Census Bureau’s $73 million cost estimate may be low, because it has not been updated to account for “significant changes” that have occurred since it was developed in 2011.

“Additionally, the unreliability of the Bureau's cost estimate for the Internet response option cast doubt on the reliability of associated potential cost savings estimates,” wrote the GAO.

By the way, the total cost of the 2010 census topped $14.7 billion, a figure that could double in 2020.

Along with lowering the total cost of the 2020 census, the Census Bureau says allowing online responses will improve the count’s accuracy by getting more responses from historically hard-to-count segments of the population, like “minorities, renters, children, low-income households, and low-education households.”

Internet Response Was Tested in 2000 Census

The Census Bureau actually conducted a limited test of an Internet response option during the 2000 census.

Partly because the Bureau failed to advertise it, the Internet option drew only about 169,000 responses from some 63,000 households. “However, the test demonstrated that the Internet response option worked operationally,” noted the GAO.

But the Test Also Exposed Some Very Dark Clouds

In spite of the apparent success of the 2000 test, the Bureau decided not to include the Internet response option in the design for the 2010 census.

According to the GAO, this was because the test also indicated that the Internet response option did not increase the overall response rate enough to justify the costs, which the Bureau had once-again underestimated.

Perhaps most troubling to We the People, the test left the Census Bureau with “continued concerns” about its ability to adequately protect respondents’ personal data from identity thieves or internal misuse. Uh-Oh!

Why Census Accuracy Matters

It is important that the decennial census count is as accurate as possible, because it is the basis of the process of “apportionment,” which determines the number of seats each state holds in the House of Representatives. And remember, the number of Electoral College votes controlled by each sate is equal to its number of seats in the House, plus one for each of its two Senators.

Major new costs involved with online census responses include developing and acquiring new, highly secure information technology systems and infrastructure, and then testing the whole thing.

The Census Bureau is currently planning to conduct two field tests this year specifically focused on locating and contacting those hard to count populations.

However, noted the GAO, “Key questions related to estimating the Internet self-response rate and determining the information technology (IT) infrastructure needed to support it may not be answered in time for the preliminary design decision, scheduled for September 2015,” so the testing phase could be delayed.

The actual 2020 census is scheduled to be conducted on April 1, 2020.

The GAO recommended that the Census Bureau update its online response system cost estimates to ensure they are reliable. Through the Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau said it intends to press ahead, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the GAO’s recommendations or changing much of anything. 

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Longley, Robert. "GAO Questions Cost of 2020 Census Internet Response Plan." ThoughtCo, May. 18, 2016, thoughtco.com/gao-questions-census-internet-response-plan-3321004. Longley, Robert. (2016, May 18). GAO Questions Cost of 2020 Census Internet Response Plan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/gao-questions-census-internet-response-plan-3321004 Longley, Robert. "GAO Questions Cost of 2020 Census Internet Response Plan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/gao-questions-census-internet-response-plan-3321004 (accessed September 26, 2017).