What is the Census Bureau?

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

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The Bureau of the Census (Census Bureau) is the most significant statistical agency in the U.S. federal government and is responsible for producing data about the American people and economy. A division under the Department of Commerce (DOC), the Census Bureau is vital in critical decision-making that impacts communities nationwide by providing the statistical evidence required to distribute trillions of federal funds to hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and other resources.

This data is primarily collected through over 130 surveys and programs a year, including the American Community Survey (ACS), Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), American Housing Survey (AHS), and Decennial Census, all owned by the Census Bureau.

Due to its direct effect on the American people, the Census Bureau must operate at the highest caliber across every element of its mission. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) listed the 2020 Decennial Census on its High-Risk List for missing key IT deadlines, meaning there was potential for the entire project to be a failure.

As the Census Bureau prepares to conduct its 25th Census in 2030, Congress has appropriated an increased budget for contractor assistance across operations to mitigate any unique risks opening the door for additional contract opportunities over the next few fiscal years.

History, Mission, and Organization

The mission of the Census Bureau is to “serve as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy.” 

Congress opened a Census Office for the 1880 Decennial Census, and although technically temporary, it was open almost continuously after the 1890 census. This was due to the inclusion of demographic, agricultural, and economic information in the survey and the subsequent need to analyze it. Decennial Census Supervisors, chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, selected the Census enumerators.

Closing and reopening the Census Office meant recruiting, training, and dismissing staff for every census. Noticing the need for a permanent solution, Congress passed legislation establishing a perpetual Census Office, led by William Rush Merriam, within the Department of the Interior in 1902. The Census Office was moved to the Department of Labor and Commerce in 1903 and stayed with DOC when the agency split in 1913.

Led by a Presidential Appointed Director, the Bureau employs 4,285 professionals at its headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, and across its six regions. Each region is led by a Census Bureau Regional Office, responsible for data collection, dissemination, geographic operations, and managing their professional network of field representatives. 

Between 1961 and 2012, the Census Bureau had 12 permanent regional offices in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Each office had an average of 50 permanent, full-time employees and a decentralized staff of 500 field representatives who collected data required for the Census Bureau’s surveys.

In June 2011, the Census Bureau announced it would reorganize its regional office structure to reduce costs and improve the quality of its surveys. As of January 1, 2013, the agency closed six regional offices. The remaining offices are in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York.

  • Regional Office 1: Atlanta 
    • Areas served: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
  • Regional Office 2: Chicago
    • Areas served: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
  • Regional Office 3: Denver
    • Areas served: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • Regional Office 4: Los Angeles 
    • Areas served: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
  • Regional Office 5: New York
    • Areas served: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
  • Regional Office 6: Philadelphia
    • Areas served: Delaware, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Today the Census Bureau conducts over 130 surveys and programs annually that directly influence state, local, and federal policymaking, community planning, and resource allocation for the next decade. For instance, at least 353 federal assistance programs relied on Census Bureau data in whole or in part to distribute $2.8T to communities in FY21. HHS, in particular, is a frequent user, and the top five programs that utilized Census data are below.

  • Medical Assistance Program (HHS): $568,115,846,349
  • Medicare Part B—Medicare Supplementary Medical Medicare Part B—Medicare Supplementary Medical Insurance (HHS): $395,915,112,082
  • Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (TREAS): $350,824,555,169
  • Medicare Part A—Medicare Hospital Insurance (HHS): $326,389,294,515
  • Education Stabilization Fund (ED): $231,827,196,664

Contract Procurement, Acquisition, and Grants

The Office of Acquisition Management (OAM) assists with overall DOC program management, risk, grants, and other acquisition-related activities. Its Procurement Forecast includes upcoming Census opportunities. Contracts are acquired through OAM or the Census Bureau itself. Interested contractors must register with the Census Bureau, SAM.gov, and FBO.gov

In 2022, Census made up a small portion of DOC contract dollars and actions, despite the increased spending during a Decennial Census year.

Top Vehicles (FY18-FY22):

  • Enterprise Solutions Framework for Systems Engineering and Integration (ESF4SEI)
  • Multiple Award Schedule (MAS)
  • Chief Information Officer Commodities and Solutions (CIO-CS)
  • Information Technology Schedule 70 (IT-70)
  • Chief Information Officer – Solutions and Partners 3, Small Business (CIO-SP3 SB)

Most contract work occurs in Maryland, and most contract awardees are from Virginia or Maryland. Only nine grants were awarded by Census between FY2018-FY2022, totaling $15,173,686.

Contract obligations spiked in 2019 and 2020 due to the 2020 Decennial Census.

Top 10 U.S. Federal Contractors (FY18-FY22): 

  • T-Rex Solutions, LLC
  • General Dynamics Information Technology, Inc.
  • Young & Rubicam LLC
  • CDW Government LLC
  • Deloitte Consulting LLP
  • Guidehouse Digital LLC
  • Paradyme Management Inc
  • Accenture Federal Services LLC
  • Blue Tech Inc.
  • The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company

Top 10 PSCs (FY18-FY22):

  • R799 – Support – Management: Other
  • D318 – IT and Telecom – Integrated Hardware/Software/Services Solutions, Predominantly Services
  • R701 – Support – Management: Advertising
  • D319 – IT and Telecom – Annual Software Maintenance Service Plans
  • 7030 – Information Technology Software
  • Z2AA – Repair or Alteration of Office Buildings
  • R425 – Support – Professional: Engineering/Technical
  • R707 – Support – Management: Contract/Procurement/Acquisition Support
  • R431 – Support – Professional: Human Resources
  • D308 – IT and Telecom – Programming 

Top 10 NAICS Codes (FY18-FY22):

  • 541512 – Computer Systems Design Services
  • 541519 – Other Computer-Related Services
  • 519190 – All Other Information Services
  • 541810 – Advertising Agencies
  • 541511 – Custom Computer Programming Services
  • 541611 – Administrative Management and General Management Consulting Services
  • 334111 – Electronic Computer Manufacturing 
  • 236220 – Commercial and Institutional Building Construction
  • 541618 – Other Management Consulting Services 
  • 511210 – Software Publishers

The Decennial Census

The first Census was in 1790 – so older than the Census Bureau itself – ordered by President George Washington and organized by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; it is also mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. U.S. Marshals went from house to house, asking only six questions.

In 1849, Congress established a census board to oversee the data collection, and DOI took over census duties from the Department of State (DOS). It moved to DOC in 1903. As more topics were added to the survey, the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) manual – the first version of the NAICS – was developed to categorize industries. 

The Decennial Census has come a long way since 1790, now collecting data on marital status and business information, offering digital responses, validating addresses using geographic information systems (GIS) and satellite imagery, etc. The Census influences issues like how congressional seats are appointed, how federal funds are distributed, and where new roads and schools will be built.

The Decennial Census is a complex undertaking. Temporary processing locations employing more than 1M people need to be established. During the years just before the decennial census, parallel census offices, known as “Regional Census Centers,” are opened in the field office cities. The Census Bureau also runs the Census Information Center (CIC) cooperative program that involves 58 organizations to represent the interests of underserved communities. These centers require supplies for census takers, lodging, meeting spaces, and more!

Administering this nationwide survey (you could even argue it is a global survey since Americans living abroad also participate) is not cheap and gets more expensive every time. The 2000 census cost $4.5B, 2010 was $14.7B, and 2020 is estimated at $13.7B (work officially ends in 2024). However, not all these dollars go to federal contractors: $2.04B was obligated for the 2010 census and $5.9B for the 2020s. 

Some indications indicate that Decennial Census spending increases one to two years before the census year. There isn’t enough data to fully confirm this, but it could mean that 2029 could be a big year in 2030 census requirement funding. There is a 2030 Census timeline below outlining the entire process.

Decennial Census requirements bring longevity to federal contracting opportunities. It requires immense planning, hundreds of thousands of new internal and external employees, marketing campaigns, real estate leasing for local offices, and IT and cybersecurity improvements.

The 2020 Census

The work for the 2020 Decennial Census is not over yet; it is estimated to wrap up in 2024.

While the Census Bureau initially estimated it would cost $15.6B, that number is expected to be closer to $13.7B when all is said and done. GAO attributes these savings to increased productivity through technology, like using laptops and allowing people to respond online instead of staffers going house to house with pen and paper. 

Close to $5.9B went to contractual services, making it 44% of the overall census cost. These services mainly comprised IT systems and development, including the new platform that allowed citizens to respond online. After IT services and products, staff training was the second highest category of contractual obligations. Over 80% of the total $13.7B went to enumeration operations, infrastructure, and IT. 

2030 Census Opportunities

There are five focus areas, or Enhancement Areas, when developing the Decennial Census: 

  1. data collection,
  2. modernized group quarters enumeration,
  3. integrated data collection and processing in real-time, 
  4. streamlining operational support infrastructure and;
  5.  continuous data collection and aggregation. 

As you can see, the Census Bureau seeks feedback from other government agencies, watchdogs, non-government sources, and even its employees when planning for the upcoming one.

It will build on the lessons learned from the 2020 census, mainly because that was the first time citizens could respond online. The Census Bureau must also address complexities caused by a constrained fiscal environment, declining response rates, changing technology uses, distrust in government, a mobile population, an increasingly diverse population, and various living arrangements.

Since census response rates are declining, one can expect the Census Bureau to lean on contractors for communications, marketing, media, and other advertising efforts. The Census Bureau is not immune to the staffing problems plaguing the rest of the federal government. This also points to contract opportunities for staffing the program management office that oversees the contractor’s integration efforts.

Not surprisingly, IT will make up many contracting dollars for the decennial census. The Census Bureau will counter cybersecurity, field costs, and device issues. It’s estimated that Congress spent $5B on IT-related expenses for the 2020 Census, and with expenses constantly increasing, this number will likely exceed $5B for the 2030 Census. Since the 2020 Census was somewhat delayed due to IT integration problems, contractors can expect to see IT opportunities earlier to allow for more time for troubleshooting issues. 

Planning for the 2030 Census started in 2018 and is currently in the Design Selection Phase, with plans to determine a functional design in late 2024.

The Decennial Census process is never-ending; planning for the next one has already begun before one ends. The Census Bureau relies heavily on contractors to ease this burden, especially regarding IT products and services.

For contractors looking to help with the 2030 Census, the Census Bureau welcomes your recommendations and solutions for its ongoing modernization processes. IT will continue to make up many obligations, especially considering this will only be the second time people can respond online. Outside of IT, the 2030 census needs contractors for staffing, infrastructure, and training. 

Researched and authored by Haley Boulanger, Pulse Analyst.

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