Watchdog: Follow the Money

Census Bureau struggles to cut costs for the 2020 headcount

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The 2020 census may still have a hefty price tag despite efforts by the Commerce Department to cut costs, a new report shows.

At a cost of $94 per household, the entire 2010 census cost the government nearly $13 billion to complete. The high price, along with the 2013 sequester, prompted the Census Bureau to attempt to lower the price per household for the upcoming 2020 census before it balloons to $148 per household.

But the Census Bureau has some hurdles to jump before it gets there.

The Commerce Department's inspector general found the bureau struggles to record the hourly salary costs of its employees because of predetermined budgets. Thus, the salaries of these employees -- who are working to reduce costs of the 2020 census -- are simply recorded to line up with the budget prior budget allocations.

Because of these inaccuracies in recording salaries, the IG determined the statuses of what the employees are working on are inaccurate and unusable — meaning the attempt to reduce the census budget could be futile.

“To effectively manage a program of the size, complexity and cost of the 2020 Census […] managers need accurate accounting records,” according to the IG report.

The IG also found huge discrepancies between the number of employees listed as working on a project and those billing for the project: 600 employees were reporting project costs, but 147 only were listed on the roster for those seven specific projects.

When asked for the actual numbers of hours worked and billed by employees, the bureau offered no explanation of why they could not be determined.

Employees were also caught by the IG working on projects other than the ones to which they're assigned.

For example, nearly 900 employees had salaries through research and technology projects, but more than 300 of them were also billing to another project in a different division.

“This increases the risk that the Bureau is mischarging reimbursable projects or spending appropriated or apportioned funds on activities outside the scope,” the IG reported.

The program also failed to give the IG’s office documentation supporting it budget justifications of $131 million in 2013 and $244 million in 2014, despite the Commerce Department requiring it do so.

Finally, with no general oversight, the program’s goal of a reduced 2020 budget may go unreached.

In December, the IG reported the bureau was already struggling to research budget reduction possibilities and manage challenges facing the 2020 census design.

The bureau will be soon submitting a plan of correct the problems found, the IG said.

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