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300 million and counting (part 2)

Last month, I took a preliminary look at the US Census, and all of the efforts that have gone into preparing 300 million potential participants to inform and encourage them to respond. This month, we’ll take a look at their data collection process, and some pros and cons of their approach.

First, let’s look at the methodology that is used to gather feedback. In 2010, the primary method is a paper survey that is mailed to individual households, and expected to be mailed back in an accompanying postage paid envelope. Respondents have approximately 30 days to respond on their own. After this 30 day period (starting April 10), there will be a period of in-person follow ups provided by volunteers to encourage participation. After a review of the success of this activity, the Census Bureau will hire employees to conduct face-to-face interviews with those who have yet to respond.

Now, you may note that, in this day and age where internet adoption feels nearly universal (62% of US households have internet access, according to the Census Bureau), the Census is not available to take online. There was an online component in 2000, but not this year. They are actively looking at providing this option in the future, but it does seem odd that with a budget of $15 billion, it would benefit them to provide an option that is convenient, cheap, and already utilized by many in their daily lives.

However, recognizing that the US is a diverse culture, the paper survey is available in 6 languages:

·         English

·         Spanish

·         Chinese

·         Korean

·         Russian and

·         Vietnamese

Although these are available by request only, it is encouraging that it is being offered in multiple languages to ensure participation across the country.

As you can see, the Census has taken a very hands-on, and costly approach to their survey this year, in hopes of securing a very strong response rate. If stacked, the paper used to print the surveys would be 29 miles high, and weigh 11.6 million pounds. Concerned about how much the government is spending? Well, the best way to help is by sending your survey back. For every one percentage point improvement in response rates, the government will save approximately $85 million in salaries and mailings to encourage responses. Or, think of it this way – it costs the government $0.42 for your mailed in response, but would cost them $57.00 if they have to visit you in-person to gather your responses.

So, what information is the Census looking to gather? Well, this year, not a whole lot. Very basis, need-to-know information encompasses most of the feedback, which is prudent in terms of ensuring a strong response rate and minimizing the time to complete. In past years, some unique questions have popped up in census surveys.

In 1840, questions such as the number of blind residents, the number of ‘insane and idiotic in public or private charge’ were asked, while in 1930, the census inquired about employment (or more importantly, unemployment), although due to the severity of the Great Depression, a special unemployment census was conducted the following year to get even more specific into the gravity of the situation.

Expect the time you spend to be pretty brief, particularly if you have a small household. If only one person lives at your house, it’s just a 10 question survey. If more than one, expect a few more questions. The Census Bureau anticipates their average take time to be 10 minutes or less per household, which is among the shortest in the history of the survey, and an ideal time to shoot for.

But, wait, do you remember taking ‘the long form’ in the past? This was sent out to a relatively small percentage of households in the past, but was much more in-depth, capturing a wide variety of economic data which was useful in assessing trends and planning for the future. However, the long form has been eliminated this year.

In its place, and in a move that is consistent with an approach favoring short but continuous feedback, the Census will repurpose the American Community Survey, which has been around for 10 years or so, to gather this data. This survey will go out to about 3 million households annually, and will help to fill in the gaps between each census, while reducing the burden on individuals during that time.

Now, what happens with the information that is gathered? Well, if you’re concerned about confidentiality, don’t be. All individual information is completely confidential while being maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). While aggregate information is available in near real time, your data is safe for at least 72 years. No one can access your individual results until 2082. This wasn’t always the case, though. During WWII, the Second War Powers Act of 1941 allowed results to be used to identify and track Japanese nationals due to fears of attacks from Japan. Fortunately, this act was repealed in 1947, and confidentiality of results has been intact since then.

So, where do we stand with responding to the 2010 census now? As of April 8, the participation rate is at 64% (which takes out any undeliverable addresses), so well done to everyone, especially those of you in Livonia, Michigan, Green, OH, and my neighbors in Carmel-Clay, Indiana, who lead the response with over 79% participation so far. The overall rate has already met the goal established by the Census Bureau, and gives us a chance to exceed the participation in 2000 of 72%.

In my opinion, the Census has done a lot of things right and just a few things wrong. We can certainly learn from their communication efforts, and their dedication to gathering this feedback. They’ve acknowledged our diverse needs, and have attempted to make this as short as possible, while still attempting to obtain the information that the government needs to allocate resources appropriately. They’re enabling us to participate confidentially, so that any fears over participating are allayed before we respond. And, they’re giving aggregated data to those who can use it quickly, which helps everyone leverage the feedback with minimal time lags. Also, transparency regarding response rates is great, which helps people know how things are going and what to expect.

The biggest beef I have is the cost associated with the efforts, which is linked to the methodology. In this day and age, and the focus of the current administration on leveraging technology and being socially responsible, I find it hard to believe that an online survey would not tremendously improve response rates and diminish the costs for conducting. Perhaps concerns over confidentiality might have trumped this method, but it seems as if cost concerns would have helped make this an easy win.  The only other concern I have is perhaps a greater understanding of what is to come. I think they’ve done a decent job of this, but helping the less informed connect all of the dots and ensure a common understanding of what is done with the data gathered might be more useful. We’ll examine this topic further in our next installment.

So, have you taken your Census yet? Have your neighbors?

Let me know what you think about the process, and how you perceive it benefitting you and your community.

Until next month…

Brad Harmon
Vice President, Consulting Services


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