The Census Bureau is planning for the first time next month to conduct the Economic Census of more than four million businesses using its own web-based system instead of relying solely on paper forms – a lesson for every federal agency looking to cut costs.

It will be the largest survey conducted online by the Census Bureau since it developed its web-based Centurion system in 2009. Until now, the Census has used Centurion for 50 smaller surveys from the monthly wholesale trade survey to the quarterly plant capacity survey.

However, “This is the first real big test of the infrastructure and tool,” Stephen Moore (pictured above, right), chief of Census’ Application Services Division, told Breaking Gov.

The Economic Census is conducted every five years and surveys four million businesses in more than 1,000 industries to provide a snapshot of business and the economy across the United States.

The survey will be mailed to businesses with an option to fill out the traditional paper form or log in and answer the questions online. The Census Bureau projects that about four out of 10 respondents will use the online system, and they anticipate that in the future the numbers will grow.

John Studds (pictured above, left), assistant division chief in the Census Bureau’s Enterprise Internet Solutions Division in the CIO’s office, believes that online surveys will become a regular part of the landscape.

“What we’ve seen over the last two years is a true ground shift where people are opting to answer surveys online about 40 percent of the time,” he said.

Harvard public management professor Steve Kelman described the survey initiative as a “win-win.”

“People can still respond by mail if they prefer, but many will prefer to respond online, which saves the government and taxpayer money. It also eliminates data inputting errors,” Kelman said.

The survey will be distributed to big businesses in October and smaller ones in January 2013 for their answers.

Here’s how it works:

-As soon as users log into Centurion over a secure connection, they will be presented with a dashboard with forms they are required to complete.

-As the users fills out the survey, answered questions will be collected on a database and processed. This collected data, along with will the information processed from the traditional paper submissions, will then be collated and sent to analysts for evaluation.

Centurion is a web-based framework for the design and delivery of surveys over the Internet with a model-view-controller design (MVC) and no proprietary software, Studds said.

Looking to shave costs, the Census Bureau decided to tackle building the new survey system itself without help from vendors. No cost numbers were available, but Studds said it was far less than the millions that would have been spent for a contractor.

“The idea was to provide a generic service that can be used by the Census Bureau to host Internet data collections,” Moore told Breaking Gov.

Moore also said it’s far more expensive when the agency has to take paper forms, key them into a computer system and go through the process of analyzing the data. “It (the online survey) is not costing Census anything other than what we have in place and a little bit of staff time,” Moore said.

Another test will come in January when the American Community Survey will begin using Centurion to send out its survey to 260,000 people a month or 3 million a year to generate data for communities and state and local governments on everything from the school lunch programs to new hospitals.

Centurion also can be used by nine other federal agencies that have partnered with the Census Bureau to conduct online surveys collecting data, including the National Center for Health Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And many more federal agencies could take advantage of a system that’s already built and ready to be used instead of paying contractors millions of dollars to do the same thing.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, co-director of The Census Project, a non-partisan coalition supporting an accurate census, said online surveys are becoming a necessity.

“It is cost effective,” she said. “The younger generation communicates that way. If you want to meet people in those households, you have to meet them where they are.”