census worker (Commerce.gov)

Census cuts to 'virtual canvass' will increase workload for human enumerators

After cancelling its active block resolution program, the  Census Bureau will be making nearly double the number of in-person household visits during its critical dress rehearsal test for the decennial population count.

The active block resolution program gave the bureau a way to validate address data without the use of human canvasser by conducting a "virtual canvas," assigning staff to resolve a block’s address list in the office using local address files and/or commercial data. But after "experiencing significant issues with productivity and quality control in the active block resolution phase," as the bureau termed it in an Aug. 10 Federal Register notice, Census will no longer pursue the more virtualized enumeration method for the 2018 test or the 2020 main event.

Due to these technical issues, households originally counted through active block resolution will now be added back into the in-field workload.

The original test plan was to visit 43,965 households in Washington, Rhode Island and West Virginia via in-field canvassing. The bureau budgeted 3,664 hours for that effort. Now, however, the bureau estimates it will visit 85,093 housing units and expects the effort will require 7,091 work hours.

Census had teased the prospect of an increased in-field workload earlier in the year due to budget issues, but had not specified technical issues with the program.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and outside consultant on decennials dating back to the 1990 count, said the short-term effect is that "this is going to increase the cost."

The decision to default to the proven door-to-door enumeration helps ensure the accuracy of the count, especially in hard-to-reach rural, urban and minority communities, but Lowenthal, who is also a former co-director of the watchdog group the Census Project, questioned whether Congress will appropriate the money necessary so Census isn't forced to "cut corners" on the effort.

"This is the first Census in modern history where Congress has put a cap on the overall cost of the Census at the beginning of the decade," she said. "We all know the IT system is well above its cost estimate....  Is Congress going say, 'Oh darn, you tried, and now we're at the end of the decade, and you're going to need more than you thought you would, and here it is'?"

An additional challenge facing Census -- as well as Congress -- is that there is not an accurate, updated lifecycle cost estimate. Census plans to release an updated lifecycle cost estimate later this fall, along with a version 3.0 of its operational plan to reflect recent changes.

"My concern is that Congress has pulled the budget reins so tight, and the administration is going down the same path, that there won't be enough money to do a thorough job in the field," she said. "I don't see evidence yet, and therefore I don't have confidence ... the Census Bureau will have the resources it needs to do a thorough job."

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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