Decennial Census: Bureau Should Assess Significant Data Collection Challenges as It Undertakes Planning for 2030

What GAO Found

In March 2020, the Census Bureau (Bureau) delayed the start of field data collection because of COVID-19 safety, and then revised several operational timelines in response to the pandemic and Department of Commerce (Commerce) decisions. Nationally the Bureau reported completing more than 99 percent of nonresponse follow-up cases (households that have not responded to the census) by October 15, 2020. The Bureau attributes the use of technology as among the reasons it completed the work by this date.

The Bureau, however, had lower completion percentages ranging between 94 and 99 for 10 local geographic areas, in part because of natural disasters and COVID-19. For example, according to the Bureau, in Shreveport, Louisiana, short-term closures stemming from the hurricane impacted data collection for 82,863 housing units. As a mitigation strategy, the Bureau shifted the Shreveport operation to telephone enumeration and brought in more than 1,200 enumerators from travel teams. Despite these efforts, the Bureau was unable to complete 22,588 cases in Shreveport before data collection ended. For these cases the Bureau will need to rely on alternate methods including imputation, which draws data from similar nearby households to determine whether a housing unit exists, whether it is occupied, and, if so, by how many people.

In addition to the challenges brought on by natural disasters, the Bureau encountered other difficulties during nonresponse follow-up, such as, the inability of supervisors to reassign open cases in a timely fashion. GAO found that census field supervisors did not have the authority to reassign cases and had to wait for the field manager to make those reassignments. Bureau officials told GAO it would consider the reassignment of cases as it moves towards planning for the 2030 Census.

To monitor nonresponse follow-up, the Bureau used quality control procedures, such as real-time monitoring of enumerator activities by supervisors and training assessments. However, GAO found the Bureau did not have proper controls in place, allowing some enumerators to work without having passed the required training assessment. The Bureau agreed that additional controls were necessary.

The Bureau planned to count individuals living in group quarters, such as skilled-nursing and correctional facilities, between April 2, 2020, and June 5, 2020, but revised those dates to July 1, 2020, through September 3, 2020. The pandemic made it difficult to count group quarters. For example, Bureau staff found it challenging to locate a point of contact at some group quarters because facilities were closed due to the pandemic. Bureau officials told us that in December 2020 they decided to re-contact more than 24,000 out of approximately 272,000 group quarter facilities to collect data, and that imputation would be used to count individuals at the remaining facilities still reporting a zero population count.

The Bureau is updating plans to assess operations and identify resulting lessons learned from the 2020 Census. As part of its planning for 2030, it will be important for the Bureau to assess the impact of the 2020 late design changes and the operations’ challenges that arose.

Why GAO Did This Study

The 2020 Census was conducted under extraordinary circumstances. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and related Commerce decisions, the Bureau made a series of late changes to the design of the census. As GAO previously reported, these changes introduced risks to the quality of data that the Bureau provides for congressional apportionment and redistricting purposes.

GAO was asked to review the Bureau’s implementation of the 2020 Census. This report assesses the Bureau’s implementation of the: (1) nonresponse follow-up operation, (2) group quarters enumeration, and (3) plans to assess those operations. To address these objectives, GAO conducted a series of surveys of all 248 census offices during the collection of data for those operations. GAO also monitored the cost and progress of operations and interviewed census field supervisors for each operation.

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    In U.S GAO News
    GAO's analysis of federal data found that about 1 percent of companies with Department of Defense (DOD) contracts were cited for willful or repeated safety, health, or fair labor violations in fiscal years 2015 through 2019. However, these data do not indicate whether the violations occurred while performing work related to a defense contract. Companies with DOD Contracts Cited for Willful or Repeated Violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 or the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019 Because of limitations in available data, GAO could not determine the total incidence of willful or repeated violations of safety, health, or fair labor standards among all companies with a defense contract in this 5-year time frame. Specifically, about 43 percent of the Department of Labor's (Labor) safety and health violation data did not include key company identification numbers. These numbers are necessary to match federal contracting data to violation data. GAO recommended in February 2019 that Labor explore ways to address this issue. While Labor neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, it issued a memorandum in May 2019 directing its Occupational Safety and Health Administration staff to make every reasonable effort to collect this information during inspections and enter it into its database. About 1 percent of Labor's data on fair labor violations were missing these key company identification numbers. The nature of the willful or repeated violations for companies with DOD contracts during fiscal years 2015 through 2019 varied. According to GAO's analysis of Labor data, the most frequently found willful or repeated safety and health violations related to toxic substances and machinery. For that same time frame, the most frequently found willful or repeated fair labor violations related to failure to pay overtime. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to report on the number of DOD contractors that Labor found to have committed willful or repeated violations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) or the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) for fiscal years 2015 through 2019. This report examines the number of DOD contractors that were cited for willful or repeated safety, health, or fair labor standards violations under the OSH Act or FLSA, and the nature of those violations for fiscal years 2015 through 2019. GAO analyzed federal contracting data to identify companies that had defense contracts in fiscal years 2015 through 2019, and matched them to Labor data on companies cited for willful or repeated safety, health, or fair labor standards violations. In addition, GAO used the Labor data to identify information on the nature of the violations. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, and agency documents. For more information, contact William T. Woods at (202) 512-4841 or woodsw@gao.gov, or Thomas Costa at (202) 512-7215 or costat@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Energy's (DOE) Order 140.1 included provisions inconsistent with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's (DNFSB) original enabling statute—the statute in place when the order was issued—and with long-standing practices. For example, GAO found that Order 140.1 contained provisions restricting DNFSB's access to information that were not included in the statute. GAO also found Order 140.1 to be inconsistent with long-standing DNFSB practices regarding staff's access to certain National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) meetings at the Pantex Plant in Texas, where nuclear weapons are assembled and disassembled (see fig.). In December 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20 NDAA) amended DNFSB's statute to clarify and confirm DNFSB's authority and long-standing practices between the agencies. DOE replaced Order 140.1 with Order 140.1A in June 2020. National Nuclear Security Administration's Pantex Plant, Located Near Amarillo, Texas DNFSB, DOE, and NNSA officials that GAO interviewed identified concerns with Order 140.1 that GAO found are not addressed under DOE's Order 140.1A. In particular, DOE's Order 140.1A was not part of a collaborative effort to address DNFSB's remaining concerns related to access to information and other regular interagency interactions. For example, DNFSB officials cited concerns that DOE could interpret a provision of DNFSB's statute authorizing the Secretary of Energy to deny access to information in a way that could limit DNFSB access to information to which it has had access in the past. GAO has previously recommended that agencies develop formal written agreements to enhance collaboration. By collaborating to develop an agreement that, among other things, incorporates a common understanding of this provision, DOE and DNFSB could lessen the risks of DNFSB being denied access to information important for conducting oversight. DOE and NNSA officials, as well as contractor representatives involved in operating the facilities, also raised concerns that insufficient training on Order 140.1 contributed to uncertainties about how to engage with DNFSB staff when implementing the order, a problem that GAO found could persist under Order 140.1A. Providing more robust training on Order 140.1A would help ensure consistent implementation of the revised order at relevant facilities. Established by statute in 1988, DNFSB has broad oversight responsibilities regarding the adequacy of public health and safety protections at DOE defense nuclear facilities. In May 2018, DOE issued Order 140.1, a new order governing DOE's interactions with DNFSB. DNFSB raised concerns that the order could affect its ability to perform its statutory mandate. Congressional committee reports included provisions for GAO to review DOE Order 140.1. This report examines (1) the extent to which the order was consistent with DNFSB's original enabling statute and with long-standing practices, as well as actions DOE has taken in light of changes to the statute outlined in the FY20 NDAA; and (2) outstanding areas of concern that DNFSB and DOE identified, and the potential effects of these concerns on how the two agencies cooperate. GAO reviewed legislation and agency documents; visited DOE sites; and interviewed DNFSB, DOE, and NNSA officials and contractor representatives. GAO is making a recommendation to DOE and DNFSB that they collaborate to develop a written agreement, and an additional two recommendations to DOE, including that it develop more robust training on Order 140.1A. DOE and DNFSB agreed to develop a written agreement. DOE agreed with one of the other two recommendations, but did not agree to provide more robust training. GAO maintains that the recommended action is valid. For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.
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