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300 million and counting (literally)

As you probably know, every 10 years, the United States government attempts to survey the entire population of the country. To me, this is the ultimate survey program, and while there are differences to the feedback that we try to gather from our customers on a regular basis, there are a lot of parallels as well. In fact, I think there are several things that we can learn from the government’s efforts here that can help us execute and act upon feedback we gather. This is the first of three planned articles about the 2010 US Census. Over the next couple of months, I’ll explore the process in three parts: Pre-Survey, Data Collection, and Post-Survey.

Pre Survey:

The founding fathers of the United States helped to instill a culture for surveying the population of the United States all the way back in 1790 – in fact, Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States dictates that a survey will be conducted every 10 years

"The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they shall by Law direct."
— Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States

This is an important lesson for us to learn from. The fact that this has been planned for, mandated, and carried on as tradition allows for it to continue, relatively unquestioned. Couple that with the decisions that are made based on the feedback, and there is little doubt that the US Census is part of the DNA of our culture, and process whose value is demonstrated consistently to the country.

The process for determining the questions to ask is a well thought out process, and ensures buy-in from key stakeholders in the U.S. Government. In fact, three years prior to the survey process, the U.S. Census Bureau must inform Congress of the subject areas they’d like to cover in the survey, and must have the questions locked down two years before the survey is launched. By going through this process, the information needs and question-owners must be identified and the potential decisions to be made must be considered long before any feedback is gathered. This ensures that "nice to know" questions are challenged, while "need to know" questions are given priority. 

While having such long lead times might be nice, obviously in our efforts we cannot afford this amount of time in gathering information for business decisions. But, the key lesson here is that every key stakeholder gets an opportunity to weigh in and is required to demonstrate how the information gathered will be used. This process continues to ensure buy-in and sorts out the key information needs long before the process is underway.

If there is one thing that the U.S. Census Bureau has done well, it is communication. They certainly have covered all the bases, from buying commercial time during the Super Bowl, sponsoring a NASCAR team, to making sure that children are aware (thanks to Dora the Explorer).

They’ve also developed a robust website, and have mailed out individual communications directed to respondents. As you can see, the Census does not suffer from underexposure. Its owners have done a great job of building awareness, while also branding the effort. It has been dubbed “In our Hands,” and provides a call to action for us as respondents:

 “We can’t move forward until you mail it back.”

While the process is expected to cost $15 billion (that’s about $48 per person), it is necessary to achieve the response rates that are necessary to allow for proper actions to be taken as a result of the feedback. This year, the Census Bureau is expecting a response rate of 64% (in 2000, 72% of Americans participated).

This biggest lesson in communications that we can apply to our efforts is how the census has demonstrated it has the full support of the President of the United States, as exhibited by the following video.


Note that the video is not just available in English, but also has been offered in other languages, an acknowledgement of the differing needs of the target audience.

The final item that’s critical in the pre-survey planning is illustrating the importance of the program to potential respondents. Their site has a section dedicated to providing reasons to participate, and outlining decisions and actions that will be impacted by the results. There’s also a threat, which I suppose we could incorporate into our survey efforts, but it probably left to those who could conceivably enforce a penalty to the very audience they’re targeting.

On Census Day (April 1, 2010), we’ll look at the data collection process, and identify some of the best practices that the Census is employing to make this as effective as possible. Hopefully by then, both you and I will have participated, and we can share our own experiences.


Brad Harmon
Vice President, Consulting Services

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