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Envisioning the 2020 Census
executive branch agencies, and advocacy and interest groups—can drop off in the years following a census count. So too can the funds appropriated to the Census Bureau—a result that can restrict or preclude serious research and early planning for the next census.
The decennial census is necessarily a high-stakes program, and to some extent the escalating costs of the census and the steady accretion of coverage improvement operations (without a review of their cost-effectiveness) described in Chapter 2 result from this pressured environment. Absent the resources to conduct research on strategic design issues early in a decade—to guide the selection of principal design components and test the feasibility and interoperability of new and alternative methods—incrementalism in approach to the census is virtually inevitable. To their credit, Congress and presidential administrations have historically been unstinting in providing resources for the census as decennial dates have drawn close; the challenge going forward is to make the case that investment in research early in the decade—and the changes that develop from that research—will yield a more efficient and effective census in the end. Likewise, a Census Bureau research program should engage the entire range of stakeholders throughout the decade on key research and quality issues rather than try to pile on last-minute changes in years ending in 8 or 9.
Our urging in Recommendation 2.1 that the Census Bureau commit to bold and public cost and quality goals for the 2020 census is meant to promote a commitment to change early in the decade. We close this report on directions toward a new vision for the 2020 census by suggesting that national conversations on the nature of the census—and the research needed to effect real change—need to take place early, and over the whole decade.
Recommendation 4.7:The Census Bureau’s planning for the2020 census, particularly for research in the period 2010–2015,should be designed to permit proper evaluation of significantinnovations and alternatives to the current decennial census design that will accomplish substantial cost savings in 2020 without impairing census quality. Otherwise, the census design in2020 will either be an incremental change from that in 2010with increased costs, or the Census Bureau may be compelledto implement a poorly evaluated and tested alternative designunder severe time and cost constraints with a risk of substantially reduced quality. All involved, including Congress and theadministration, should recognize that substantial cost savings in2020 can be achieved only through effective planning over thecourse of the 2010–2020 decade and should fund and pursueresearch efforts commensurately.