“Quality” as Used in Science and “Quality” as Used in Public Discourse

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

Much of the work of the Census Bureau is embedded in a culture of science. The notions of quality of our work are derived from scientific principles. Our language to describe our products uses scientific and statistical terms. Inherent in this perspective is the ethic that the scientist must reveal all the weakness, qualifications, and alternative possibilities of a piece of work. In short, scientists tend to emphasize the negative qualities of their work before revealing their conclusions. Bertrand Russell once said that the more scientists know, the more forcefully they articulate what they do not know.

Interestingly to me, the census and survey statistics given to the public are delivered into a very different culture. This is the culture of public media and politics that rarely can permit extended descriptions of facts and their attributes. This is the world where single phrases are often used to describe the result of large works. In such a context, qualifications about findings and descriptions of alternative conclusions are rarely revealed.

With the growing desire on the Census Bureau’s part to be transparent in all its work, this situation poses an interesting problem. If we give a full picture of the results of the decennial census, with full intent of transparency, little of what we distribute may make its way to the public. If we provide only our selection of the key facts, we fail to provide the full picture, and violate our scientific principles.

I fully believe that the ultimate measure of quality of government statistics is the extent to which the public judges they are credible. However, for many statistics there is no single feature that defines their utility to the user; that is, the extent that they deserve to be credible.

Further, the “quality” of a census or survey estimate varies across different statistics. For example, the US population count, the 50 state population counts, and the roughly 8 million census block counts face different challenges. We need to find an effective way to communicate the multiple features of the multiple statistics we distribute, despite the need for simplicity in our communications. Without that, users cannot adequately judge the statistical information’s credibility.

In short, we have our work cut out for us. We have to communicate simply and clearly to the public about our professional evaluation of the census statistics. In addition, we must describe multiple indicators of survey and census quality.

We’ll attempt to do so in clear and terse language.

Please submit any questions pertaining to this post to ask.census.gov

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11 Responses to “Quality” as Used in Science and “Quality” as Used in Public Discourse

  1. Paul A.Morales says:

    I Paul A.Morales did the office remodel at Riverside ,Ca 92505 office the US Census promise me I would get Paid so I did every thing in my power to make sure the office was open in time.Until this day I have not been paid if theirs anything that could help me and my family out because every thing that I work for could be at risk is this the way we get re payed by the US Government.

  2. Donald says:

    Your “wordsmiths” truly outdid themselves on this one, Mr. Groves. Much like me, the average citizen who responded to the call of the census this year probably doesn’t have a clue what you are attempting to communicate in this message of yours today. Are you talking about what you’re going through right now to ensure that you counted everyone in this country accurately during this 2010 Census? Or have you developed a new untested scientific method to explain what might have gone wrong…without actually saying you weren’t quite as accurate as you thought you could be? Trust me, there wasn’t any science involved during the last three (3) months when your army of temporary enumerators took up pencil and paper as they went door to door throughout this country while trying to locate and count the 28% of our population who didn’t respond to this 2010 census. And I truly hope you aren’t going to use some sort of science when you finally announce the 2010 U.S. Census total count at the end of this year… Anything other than an actual count will once more bring clamor from both sides of the political aisle. Speak plainly, put politics aside, and produce the most accurate count possible.

  3. geoff says:

    In a prior post you indicated that previously enumerated cases showed that those listed as VACANT were actually 25% occupied in your NRFU-VDC operation that is on going now. What could account for that:
    -poor NFRU census employees in the 1st operation along with supervisors?
    -better quality NFRU-VDC census employees that find these units were occupied during quality check?
    -computer generated EQ’s that found flaws in first reporting?
    Whatever it is I find it alarming that such a high percentage is being reported nationally now. I think a complete accounting off all VACANT/DELETES should be top priority or a lot of people will never be counted and the results compromised.

  4. Dex Panthenol says:

    As a NRFU and NRFU-VDC enumerator I can tell you that proxy info was inconsistent. If after several unsuccessful visits to the address or apartment/condo you had to turn to a neighbor or property management company, and you were asking about their knowledge of residency at some other household for one specific date (April 1, 2010) that was weeks or months in the past, the answers were not always accurate.
    If you weren’t confident about the information and went to another proxy you might get a different response.
    What we don’t know about our neighbors is a lot!
    Since many, many proxies (excepting property managers) were unwilling to provide their own name and phone – which was required if you were to report the response from the proxy – you were often left with a choice of turning in information that you could not be certain of, or turning in a “population unknown” report.
    Property managers, when they were not too busy to check their records, sometimes made mistakes, too. When you would repeat the information back to them (usually we were trying to get a last name and phone number so we could continue pursuing the resident – if they still lived there) and you would repeat the April 1 date, you might get an “Oh, no their lease began on …” and it might be a few days off.
    In addition, with an apartment, the lease date might or might not correspond to the actual move-in date which was not apparent from the management records.
    Not surprising that addresses reported as vacant sometimes turned out not to be. And vice versa.


    As a NRFU -RI, enumerator I strongly agree that proxy/neighbor concept info was inconsistent and it appears that the neighbors/proxy had provided the info casually unaware of the fsct that it shall be followed up by quality as i feel in general. If after several unsuccessful visits to the address or apartment/condo you had to turn to a neighbor or property management company, and the answers were not always accurate.MOREOVER DUE TO RECESSION ETC PROPERTY MANAGEMENT RECORDS APPEARS TO BE INCORRECT alsoi.e. ACCOMODATION/LEASE FOR SAY 2 PEOPLE BUT IN REALITY SAY 4 PEOPLE ARE LIVING .SUCH CASE HAVE BEEN VERY COMMON,In some case as I felt property management companies refrain from giving any info for privacy reasons etc.
    Inspite of these hurdles ,i am of the opionin that all of us left no stone unturned to have the accurate results and may be the subject may be looked into in future.

  6. Donald says:

    I hope you’re reading this too, Mr. Groves, because as a professional enumerator since the 1990 U.S. Census, I can appreciate what has been written in the two posts concerning having to rely on “proxy’s” and knowledgeable sources when census enumerators are unable to obtain information at the front door of the “EQ” AA addresses. Much has happened since Census Day on April 1st, with individuals and entire families moving out, while others have already moved in…with some homes already demolished. And now in just 120 days, memories are fading and records are overwritten…as fresh data replaces the people no longer there. Therefore, those angel proxy’s we once so relied on when all else failed when memories were fresh, those proxy’s today are too often becoming a contradiction to the original data we first secured during the early stages of NRFU. And while I have always been thankful to the “knowledgeable” proxy’s I often had to seek out when all else failed, my disappointment has often been how quick too many inexperienced enumerators, for all the wrong reasons, too often sought out a proxy after a first personal visit. Then bad habits carried over into “VDC”. Therefore, why we had to declare some of our latest efforts during NRFU-VDC as “unknown population” because revisits to some of the same proxy’s often proved to be faulty. At least for me, while I often maximized the three (3) and six (6) visit attempt rule during NRFU and NRFU-VDC in an attempt to contact family members at the AA addresses, my percentage of successful personal interviews often soared through my own persistence…proving consistent morning, afternoon, and evening visits were most often successful…ensuring a better count. I proved by my own success of personal interviews that there were as many people home during the weekday morning and afternoon hours as there were during the evening and weekend hours, while some of the contacts were just plain good luck. For me, I relied on my past census experience and it sure worked for me. Yet it’s been the too often inexperience of your general field staff during this 2010 Census that disappointed me most, Mr. Groves, and it should have been a concern of yours long ago. Nonetheless, with the counting now nearly over, I hope the work of all those who did the best they could isn’t forgotten, and maybe you can find time to thank us all. Thank you!

  7. Concerned Enumerator says:

    The Cwensus in New Orleans is a joke we had inexperienced management that was not versed on what was to be done. They hurried enumerators in obtaining questionnaires due to their inefficiency in the LOC. The VDC was three weeks late starting due to a computer problem in the LOC, all the vacant deletes were not allocated to be reinterviewed. I could go on and on with the descrepancies in this office but I would be writing forever Yes a lot of units were declared vacant due to the rush on the follow-up and the procedure changes instituted by the New Orleans LOC.Many grievances have been filed but answers have yet to be supplied. Wondering if they were ever submitted.

  8. Thomas Smith says:

    I have found the work with this census pretty unrewarding…I have been involved here in Las Vegas since March and the inconsistencies to which the work has been applied is amazing! As a NRFU/RI Crew Leader it seemed the only thing our LCO cared about was how fast we accomplished the work…ending the phase, then re-starting many times (at least 3 times)…we would hear things like, our LCO wanted to be the first done in her region…oops…more work…oops…no we are closing the phase…oops…more work…dribbled in small lots which hardly justified our pay. I can attest to a lot of problems with proxies…specially here in Vegas…a lot of people who live here don’t want to be involved in anything linked to the govt. Many apartment mgr’s were not happy with being “bothered” repeateadly by us and a few of the Crew Leaders were overly aggressive and bragged about threatening people with all sorts of ridiculous things…”Homeland Security will be interested in this address if you don’t cooperate…”, etc. How did this make us look to the general population?? No wonder we had issues…
    In the future hire more competent managers who would take their job seriously and ensure that census workers are not seen as “harrassing” the public by going to a single address over and over again…it needs to be streamlined effectively to ensure an accurate count with minimal “harrassment”. Thank-you.

  9. Name withheld says:

    As a retired executive I have never seen a more incompetent group of leaders. For the most part it was incompetents lead by incompetents. Fudging of time sheets to keep people on the payroll was encouraged as well as mileage. Trully ashamed to be part of this organization.

  10. dc_darryl says:

    I do not envy the weight that this work carries. My business has a federal classification that is based in part on census data. I would love to rest easy on the fact that all persons would rush to provide the government with the information requested – or a head count at all. I have been surprised so often when identifying and qualifying persons for our government employment program – to find that had they lived one street to the east or west, they would be in a statically better position for high consideration.
    All the best.

  11. Census Enumerator says:

    A few questions for the retired “executive” who takes issue with the incompetents:
    -If your such a high flyer…..what are you doing working for the US Census for $15 a hour?
    -As a former “executive” why were you not able to communicate your qualities to improve the situation at your local census office?
    -Fudging time sheets……….sorry Mister “executive” but you should be more specific but then again fudge is a specific food type

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