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The Cost-Saving Census

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke explains how the Census became a model of fiscal responsibility.

President Obama has often said that one of his primary goals in office is to run a government that is “more efficient and more responsive to the people it serves,” and that’s why he launched the Accountable Government Initiative to cut waste and deliver taxpayers better services for less.

Today, I went to the National Press Club to talk about how the 2010 Census was a textbook example of the president’s commitment to accountable and effective government in action.

The 2010 Census represented the largest civilian undertaking in United States history, with 565,000 census takers conducting field operations in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. 

Before this Census began, experts inside and outside the government predicted that long-standing operational and fiscal problems at the U.S. Census Bureau would doom the 2010 count to cost overruns and diminished participation by the American people.   In 2009, the Commerce Department’s own Inspector General, as well as the Government Accountability Office, ranked the 2010 Census as one of the federal government programs most likely to fail to achieve its mission

That did not happen.

Because of the exceptional efforts of our Census Bureau – led by Dr. Bob Groves -- and the cooperation of the American people and hundreds of thousands of Census partners, the 2010 Census is both on schedule and 22 percent under budget.

In all, we will be returning $1.6 billion in 2010 Census operational savings. 

Meanwhile, the 2010 census achieved a mail-back response rate of 72 percent, which defied the predictions of experts, matched the 2000 response rate, and reversed a multi-decade decline in mail response.

There is no one silver bullet that created this success -- instead, success was based on an ethic of constant improvement and a search for efficiencies over the last 17 months.

Census Bureau professionals developed a strong operational design that included important innovations including:

  • A reengineered address list;
  • A short-form 10-question questionnaire; and
  • Daily meetings to troubleshoot problems with the Bureau’s field operations control system – which was a high-risk software system used to manage the work of the 565,000 census takers conducting multiple field operations. 
  • Other innovations were more mundane – but no less impactful.  For example, one of the strategies the Census Bureau took to boost mail response was to resend questionnaires to people who hadn't initially responded; with the thinking being that some people just needed a simple reminder or may have thrown out their first questionnaire. 

This was a huge money saver for American taxpayers, as every one percent increase in the mail response rate saved $85 million, by reducing the number of expensive door to door follow-ups.

As the Census Bureau and Commerce Department undertook these internal management reforms, we also revamped our public outreach efforts, with:

  • Additional advertising in Hard-to-Count areas that included a sophisticated tracking system that allowed us to target ads at areas with lagging response rates;
  • Advertising in more languages; and a
  • 4-fold increase in staff supporting the partnership program, comprised of 255,000 community based organizations ranging from nonprofit and religious groups to businesses.

All these specific measures were an outgrowth of the Commerce Department’s commitment to applying the type of core management principles that can help solve any operational challenge.

Relentless attention to detail, setting ambitious goals and creating precise metrics to measure performance – these were the principles I depended on during my time as Governor of Washington State, and they are the principles that helped make the 2010 Census a resounding success.

As I traveled the country these last few months, I repeatedly stressed the importance of the Census to local communities. 

The Census determines how $400 billion in federal funds are allocated each year to local communities for everything from education and senior services to roads and police.

And the 2010 Census will also serve as the basis for the congressional redistricting that many states are doing in 2011.

The American people clearly got the message, and they help make the 2010 Census one of the most successful in modern history.

Gary Locke is Secretary of Commerce