A federal watchdog has criticized the Ask U.S. Panel project, concluding an investigation of the Census Bureau’s attempt to develop an online research panel to compete with the insights industry.
The Office of the Inspector General (IG) for the U.S. Commerce Department issued a final report on February 27, 2023 (OIG-23-011-I) of the office’s investigation of the Ask U.S. Panel project, noting that “the Bureau’s management and oversight of the cooperative agreement lacked transparency over key financial assistance award processes” and that the Bureau was providing significant taxpayer dollars to a private entity “without validating costs.” Most importantly, the IG found that the Census Bureau “did not document research or analysis conducted to determine whether the need for the Ask U.S. Panel could be met by existing commercial platforms or developed internally.”
As summarized by Howard Fienberg, Senior VP Advocacy for the Insights Association, “The IG report effectively scolded the Ask U.S. Panel project as a waste of taxpayer money in multiple fashions, including that the Census Bureau never bothered to check if the research services they were trying to expensively develop from scratch could have been affordably sourced from the private market. In fact, multiple private insights companies and organizations already provide these services, including to the federal government!”
As the IG finished its investigation, the Census Bureau disclosed that it would terminate the “cooperative agreement,” the contracting arrangement used to fund a private entity to build the online research panel. In the end, that panel “was not developed.”
Even as the Bureau’s attempt to build the panel via a private contractor came to an end, the IG discovered that the Census Bureau planned “to incorporate elements of the panel into studies the Bureau has underway” and that a new Bureau “panel would have some similar features to the Ask U.S. Panel but would differ in that it would be (1) built on Census systems, by Census staff, using Census data and (2) available on a cost-reimbursable basis for other federal government data collection efforts but would not serve nonprofit researchers.”
The Insights Association responded to that discovery with intense suspicion.
“We remain worried that the Census Bureau still intends to use taxpayer dollars, from multiple agencies and funding sources, to develop a service that already exists in the private market. The Bureau’s attempt to fund a private entity to learn how to build a probability-based online research panel failed, as we predicted it would, since it is a specialized area of expertise. Rather than throwing even more scarce federal resources at such an expensive effort by trying to insource the panel, the Insights Association continues to urge the Census Bureau to save a ton of money by simply purchasing the service from one of the multiple existing insights providers,” commented Fienberg.
For further background, see the Insights Association’s: