Personal Lessons From The 2010 Census

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

I’m finding myself looking back over the experience of the 2010 Census and drawing some lessons learned. If we’re smart as an organization, we’ll build the 2020 Census planning effort with these in mind.

Here they are:

Lesson 1: The multi-decade cost increase of the decennial census must be halted. We have looked at the cost trend of the last several decades, and we know that this trend is unsustainable. One way to do this is to make the next census as convenient as possible for people to answer. Another way we can do this is to maintain our collaboration with over 257,000 partnership organizations throughout the decade using modern communication tools instead of mounting an independent partnership operation later in the decade. Indeed, if the American public is fully engaged in the Census, it becomes a relatively inexpensive enterprise. This is true because the costs of following up houses that don’t respond are very high.

Lesson 2: Traditional non-response follow-up procedures are inefficient and costly. We must make the census more convenient to diverse groups in society. Thus, the second principle is that the 2020 Census will be a multiple-mode census, using mail, telephone, internet, face-to-face, and other modes as they emerge. We have to move beyond the mailback questionnaire and the personal interview. We need to ensure that the response options for the census reflect the communication platforms that people are using. For the remainder, requiring follow up, we need to squeeze every ounce of efficiency out of the costly knocking on doors.

Lesson 3: Systems development that requires first-use perfection must be abandoned. In the 2010 Census, given some of the Census Bureau’s challenges, we were developing critical systems weeks before their use; important weaknesses were discovered in the early days of production. The third principle is that we need end-to-end tests of production systems, which use all subsystems in the integrated form needed in the production phase. In early planning, we need to mitigate the risks that led to this need for first-use perfection. New system capabilities will be developed in an incremental and modular fashion so that users have a chance to test and evaluate mission critical systems well before they are deployed to production environments.

Lesson 4: Too few of the system and procedure developments of the 2010 Census were designed to have residual benefits to other Census Bureau data collections. All of the valued demographic and economic data we produce use operations similar to those of the decennial census. There were too few plans to utilize the systems built for the decennial to enhance the efficiency of our many other survey operations. As a result, the large investment benefited only the decennial program, not the bulk of the Census Bureau. Thus, the fourth principle is to develop systems within similar survey production environments within the Census Bureau, test and enhance them repeatedly over the decade, ramp them up for use in the 2020 Census, and then continue to use and enhance them in our ongoing surveys. We plan to use the American Community Survey as the chief test-bed for 2020 Census systems development.

Lesson 5: The short form and replacement questionnaire provided cost-saving benefits to the 2010 Census. With the ongoing American Community Survey, the Census Bureau is providing the needed socio-economic, housing, occupation, and commuting data that are important to local communities. Utilizing the decennial census to mainly focus on the key reapportionment and redistricting purposes was wise. Thus, the fifth principle is to build on the success of the reduced burden of the 2010 short form.

Lesson 6: A small number of large tests creates intolerable risks for the Census Bureau. The sixth principle is to mount many, small tests throughout the decade. We are committing to a faster cycling of ideas and testing, relying on a lot of small tests versus a small number of large, expensive tests. For example, although we cannot know the full features of the Internet option for the 2020 Census, we will have repeated tests of Internet census measurement throughout the decade, using platforms that will increasingly resemble those available in 2020.

Lesson 7: In my professional judgment, the voluntary partnerships with over 250,000 local and national organizations, coupled with a paid advertising campaign successfully improved awareness of the coming Census. We have empirical evidence of the increasing awareness of the Census as the partnership and advertising campaign rolled out. Thus, the seventh principle is that we would like to keep these relationships warm, to seek input from these groups to inform the 2020 campaign, and to return to them Census Bureau data useful to their organizations.

Lesson 8: Updating of the master list of addresses using the Postal Service list produced a stronger list in 2010. We want to build upon this success this decade. One critical component is the Geographic Support System Initiative (GSS), an integrated program to improve address coverage and provide continuous spatial feature updates, as well as enhanced quality assessment and measurement. As a part of these efforts, the Census Bureau hopes to initiate programs to work with partners, both state, tribal, and local governments, as well as private entities, to receive addresses and map feature information continuously throughout the decade, and to update our systems so that we can more fully leverage GPS and GIS technologies and resources.

We know of no single method of collecting census data that is optimal for all residents of the U.S. Some residents have told us they do not want people visiting their home; some residents told us to use information they have already provided in other government forms; some residents want to use the Internet at any time of the day on any device they favor to fit their lifestyle; and some want to speak by telephone to someone guaranteed to speak their language and understand their sub-culture. By making the census more convenient, we hope to reduce the size of very expensive field follow-up activities. This is the most expensive part of the data collection, and by concentrating our efforts there, we want to achieve a quality census at a lower cost per household.

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7 Responses to Personal Lessons From The 2010 Census

  1. Sean Davis says:

    I worked as a Mail/Supply clerk at the Boston RCC for the 2010 census and I had always heard that things needed to be done using lessons learned. From my stand point it looked like not everyone who had prior experience from the census grasped the concept of lessons learned due to procedures that either were or should have been in place based on experience were not there or abandoned.
    when it came to lessons learned about supplies, it appeared to have worked to some degree but once in practice, the wrong quantities went to the wrong regions for some operations, under the premise of lessons learned saying their information said that the quantities are accurate.
    the one good thing about the RCC I worked in is that there were clerks that had no problem coming up with ideas on how to correct something internal or like in my case created forms for regional usage that became addendums to the D-501 security training kit which included mail/supply room issues. allowing the clerks help with come up with ideas or create usable forms like the RCC I worked in may help save money.

  2. Don says:

    “Lesson 3: Systems development that requires first-use perfection must be abandoned.” This sounds like it might be an important point, but the paragraph is opaque. Please reduce jargon and write for a more general audience.

  3. Dr Robert L Shirley says:

    I hate to be a traitor but using the “in-place” postal personnel and their local knowledge could reduce a lot of expenses

  4. Richard says:

    Use of the internet and reduce the short from to how many people live at this residence would increase response and reduce cost. I sent my form in with just that first question answered and still had numerous in person followups. Obviously I was only going to answer that first question so the followup was a waste of time and money.

  5. Juan Garcia says:

    In order to achieve some of these goals, and in addition to the collection of U.S. Postal Service data, the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program should be implemented every year instead of every ten years. Annual local updates of census addresses will help to improve the spatial future database. As a result, a second address canvassing operation won’t be necessary for the next decennial census.

  6. Beckye Frey says:

    Actually, I would like to go back to the long form. For a fast-growing city the ACS doesn’t cut it. The sample size is too small for the year to year to be accurate (one example: undercount of children by 10,000 – 25%!) The multi-year has also proven hard to use, not able to capture/reflect the quickly changing demographics. We’ve ended up pulling some data from here, some from there, and publishing only %s in other areas. At least with a long form we’d have one accurate year to balance the ACS against.
    I agree with the previous statement about LUCA… but I’d also urge a complete overhaul of PSAP. PSAP especially was a nighmare – we HAVE the accurate data, but it wouldn’t integrate/couldn’t be used.
    One other thing that isn’t mentioned on lessons learned that I have heard many times from many people: internal Census divisions that wouldn’t communicate with each other or their city liaison, let alone coordinate efforts, made it very inefficient and even uncomfortable at times – for both staff and for us (municipality). Yes, continue the partnership program – it was helpful – but it was only 20% as effective as it could have been.

  7. Dody says:

    Our town, despite active LUCA work designed to ensure completeness of addresses, was much more severely undercounted in 2010 (compared to the Town census) than it was in 2000. The main factor seems to be that in this rural community many neighborhoods do not have rural postal delivery available, and residents must rent a post office box to receive mail. Therefore there are no postal address links to physical addresses in these neighborhoods. People had to become very pro-active if they wished to be counted in the census. Many, of course, did not make this effort. The result was that a) a lot of in-person followup was necessary and b) an undercount–despite all the LUCA effort by the Town and followup effort by the Census Bureau. Surely we are not the only town with the post-office-box problem. Since the neighborhoods where mail is not delivered to homes are pretty well-defined, surely we can come up with a more effective and way to count people in this situation.

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