Author: Howard Fienberg
May 13, 2022
The leading nonprofit trade association for the insights industry delivered testimony today at the House Appropriations Committee about the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Ask U.S. Panel” project and the legislative solutions the association has sought to bring transparency to the wasteful project.
The Insights Association told the House Appropriations Committee that it "remains gravely concerned about the shaky rationale and lack of need for the Ask U.S. Panel given numerous commercially-viable alternatives. The Census Bureau should be using the competitive marketplace of available insights services to acquire pre-existing research services on an as-needed basis, which would reduce public burden, save years of development time, and ultimately cost taxpayers a lot less money."
IA has primarily opposed the project through the PRA review process at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) until recently, but the Census Bureau has proven impervious to criticism or concerns.
(IA also submitted similar testimony to the Senate CJS Subcommittee on May 26, 2022.)
Read the Insights Association's testimonyto House Appropriations in PDF or below:
On behalf of the Insights Association (IA), the leading nonprofit trade association for the market research and data analytics industry, I am respectfully submitting testimony on the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Ask U.S. Panel” project and the bill language and committee report language we are seeking. The project is presumably funded through the Current Surveys and Programs account, though the President’s FY23 budget request makes no mention of it.
IA defends and promotes the indisputable role of insights in driving positive impacts on society and consumers. Our more than 7,000 company and individual members are the world’s leading producers of intelligence, analytics and insights defining the needs, attitudes and behaviors of consumers, organizations and their employees, students and citizens. With that essential understanding, leaders can make intelligent decisions and deploy strategies and tactics to build trust, inspire innovation, realize the full potential of individuals and teams, and successfully create and promote products, services and ideas.
The Ask U.S. Panel is being developed by the Bureau through a cooperative agreement to create a new “nationally representative survey panel for tracking public opinion on a variety of topics of interest to numerous federal agencies and their partners, and for conducting experimentation on alternative question wording and methodological approaches.” The Bureau intends to spend at least the first two years of the project on a pilot before trying to make their panel probability-based in the third year (or later).
This lead time is particularly galling since numerous private sector insights companies and organizations currently provide well-established high-quality probability-based panels to the federal government and other customers without needing federal subsidy and multiple years of development time. At best, the plan for the Census Bureau to develop a probability-based research panel is duplicative. It is also anti-competitive, given these existing panels and the Bureau’s intent to fund an additional insights organization (Research Triangle Institute) to spend years building one, whose intellectual property and technology that organization would get to keep for its own purposes.
Our industry is not the only interest raising concerns about the project. The Department of Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has initiated “an evaluation” of the “award and use of a cooperative agreement to participate in a joint statistical project with Research Triangle Institute, an independent nonprofit institution.” The OIG’s “objective is to determine whether the cooperative agreement was properly authorized, executed, and administered in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.”
Recent Congressional inquiries to the Bureau have been met with reference to this OIG evaluation as the reason for the Bureau’s inability to answer questions. However, if the OIG evaluation somehow prevents the Census Bureau from discussing the Ask U.S. Panel, should it not also prevent the continued pursuit of the project?
IA has requested bill language in CJS: “No funds in this bill may be spent in support or development of the Ask U.S. Panel or any similar effort to develop a survey, opinion or market research service duplicative of private sector offerings.“
Along with the prohibition on funds, IA also requested committee report language: “Ask U.S. Panel Survey. The Committee is concerned about the lack of transparency related to the Census Bureau’s plans for implementation of the Ask U.S. Panel Survey, particularly given the lack of congressional authorization and the expanding scope of the project since it was initially announced. The Committee also is concerned about the use of taxpayer dollars for the development of a panel survey given the wide range of options that currently exist in the private sector for these types of activities. The Committee directs the Census Bureau to provide a report to the Committee within 60 days about the panel’s methodology, data collection processes, implementation, and procurement strategy to allow the Committee to evaluate the project’s use of federal resources.”
IA’s concerns include:
- Federal agencies can (and already do) purchase such services from the private sector
The ultimate goal of the Ask U.S. Panel project -- to create a probability-based nationwide representative survey panel for tracking public opinion -- is already being fulfilled utilizing numerous non-governmental sources. Insights providers such as Dynata, Gallup, Ipsos, NORC at the University of Chicago, SSRS, the University of Southern California, and others maintain probability-based research panels that could meet any needs of the Bureau or other federal agencies. Most of them already successfully provide such services to federal agency clients, including the Bureau itself. Plenty of other insights companies and organizations with panels could also adapt to provide probability-based panels if requested.
Since these insights providers offer their services commercially on the open market, the Census Bureau could acquire such panel research services with full and open competitions. So why does the Bureau feel the need to disregard the availability of ready commercial alternatives and develop its own panel?
- The Ask U.S. Panel is an unnecessary financial burden on federal taxpayers
Besides just the cost and expertise involved in establishing this duplicative service, the Census Bureau has not considered the immense expertise in data quality, incentive management and delivery, fraud detection, and privacy and permissions management required to successfully maintain this kind of panel. The Bureau has mentioned no planned procedures to monitor and mitigate attrition of panelists and how it would refresh the pool of available respondents. The multi-year pilot plan suggests they just hope to learn on the fly (an expensive gamble). Why should taxpayers fund the lengthy creation and complicated maintenance of such a duplicative service when it could be simply purchased in the open market for a tiny fraction of the cost?
The Bureau’s supporting statement to OMB estimates that the pilot will cost a mere $3.5 million, but this hides the true cost of the overall project, since actually building the panel, which the Bureau doesn’t propose to even do until at least year three, would cost a massively greater amount. NORC estimates it would cost at least $25 million to build this kind of online panel, with annual maintenance costing as much as $2 million per year. Meanwhile, NORC estimates that studies from pre-existing probability-based panel providers could “be purchased for as little as $100,000.”
- The federal government should not compete against the private sector
According to the original Notice of Federal Funding, the Ask U.S. Panel would be “open to government and other non-profit researchers and policy makers," meaning that the Bureau’s proposed panel itself could compete directly with private sector insights providers.
Since 1955, federal agencies have been charged with avoiding "activities conducted by the Government that provide services or products for its own use which could be procured from private enterprise through ordinary business channels”. The policy required the head of an agency to make any exception to such restrictions "only where it is clearly demonstrated... that it is not in the public interest to procure such product or service from private enterprise." This policy was reiterated by every Administration following, including in OMB Circular A-76 and other policies specifically requiring competitive sourcing.
The Census Bureau implies in a supporting statement to OMB that it has conducted a competitive sourcing analysis, but in fact has only checked to see if the data to be collected in the pilot project stage is duplicative of other Federal government agencies. That is no substitute for an actual competitive sourcing analysis.
- Government should not subsidize a private entity to develop (and keep for its own use) duplicative intellectual property
By using a cooperative agreement, under which the intellectual property (IP) developed is owned not by the federal government but by the awardee, the Census Bureau is using taxpayer funds to establish a panel that is free to be used by a private entity for its own work long after the contracted work is complete. Per the Department of Commerce Financial Assistance Standard Terms and Conditions (December 26, 2014, § D.03.a), the awardee “owns any work produced or purchased under a Federal award.”
How could the best or most cost-effective way of pursuing the Census Bureau’s research goals involve directly subsidizing a private entity to spend years developing a service already offered by other private entities?
We applaud the Census Bureau for their ongoing innovation and dedication to serve as the leading source of the highest quality and most representative data for America's people and economy. The Insights Association dedicates much of our daily advocacy to supporting the decennial census and the American Community Survey (ACS), the two essential federal data sources underpinning statistical sampling/representativeness in almost all U.S. research studies.
The insights industry is no stranger to the importance of the Bureau and its core work; we want the Bureau to focus on that work and do it well.
IA remains gravely concerned about the shaky rationale and lack of need for the Ask U.S. Panel given numerous commercially-viable alternatives. The Census Bureau should be using the competitive marketplace of available insights services to acquire pre-existing research services on an as-needed basis, which would reduce public burden, save years of development time, and ultimately cost taxpayers a lot less money.
Thank you for allowing IA to testify on the Ask U.S. Panel project, an important under-the-radar issue in the FY23 CJS Appropriations legislation.