The Census Bureau failed to adequately monitor advertising contracts for 2020 census, watchdog says


The U.S. Census Bureau didn’t properly administer or monitor contract orders worth hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with advertising to promote participation in the 2020 census, possibly wasting taxpayers’ dollars, according to the Office of Inspector General.

Bureau contracting officers failed to make sure standards were followed to measure the performance of contractors and didn’t receive supporting documentation for paid media invoices totaling $363 million, according to an audit report released last month by the watchdog agency.

“As a result, the bureau could have accepted substandard performance, potentially wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on advertising that did not fully meet program goals and reach intended audiences,” the report said.

The inspector general’s audit focused on $436.5 million worth of contract orders for paid advertising promoting participation in the once-a-decade head count that determines political power and the allocation of $2.8 trillion in federal funding in the U.S.

One example was an order in May 2020 to spend $2.2 million on flyers placed on pizza boxes that promoted filling out the census questionnaire online during the early days of stay-at-home orders issued because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bureau couldn’t provide supporting documentation showing that the flyers had been delivered in ZIP codes where the intended audience lived, the audit report said.

While the findings in the audit report are valid, the communications campaign was a success despite facing many challenges, the Census Bureau said in a response.

The U.S. head count campaign was the first to encourage all participants to fill out the form online and also faced unprecedented obstacles in reaching people from the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes and social justice protests that sometimes hampered census takers’ ability to reach homes, according to the bureau.

The campaign “increased awareness of the census and encouraged self-response through a variety of communication channels, successfully pivoting to use innovative communication techniques in lieu of in-person local and national activities,” the bureau said.


Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP.

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