A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that the U.S. Census Bureau spent less than it expected to on the 2020 Census, with technology being one key area that helped it to cut costs.

The 2020 Census will have cost roughly $13.7 billion by the time its activity ends in 2024 – notably below the Census Bureau’s October 2017 estimate of $15.6 billion.

The Census Bureau allocated 80 percent of its 2020 Census spending to enumeration operations, infrastructure, and information technology. While some areas cost more than expected, the bureau said technology increased the productivity of field data collection “above expectations,” resulting in less spending.

“The bureau attributed higher-than-expected productivity to its increased use of technology during the 2020 Census,” the GAO report says. “For example, for the NRFU [Non-Response Follow-Up] operation, the bureau credited the implementation of its optimized case assignment and routing (a capability known as the “optimizer”) for the higher-than-expected productivity for its enumerators.”

“Regarding NRFU, in March 2021, the Bureau reported that it had spent $1.4 billion for the operation – 11 percent under its planned budget of $1.6 billion,” it states.

Another tech innovation that helped to cut costs was the bureau’s automated time and attendance system. Thanks to the use of automation and laptops, GAO said the Census Bureau spent about $78 million less than planned for its Address Canvassing In-Field operation – 39 percent below its estimate.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bureau also had to pivot its strategy to include more virtual efforts, which also cut costs. For example, it spent about $90 million less than planned for its Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program – 81 percent below the estimate.

Despite these successes, GAO said the bureau also faced delays in integrating IT systems within its operations.

GAO made two recommendations to the Department of Commerce (DoC), including that the Census Bureau take action during the 2030 Census to document and evaluate its lessons-learned process. DoC agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.