Written by: Tom Mesenbourg
The Census Bureau has a long and distinguished history as “Fact Finder for the Nation.” Besides the Decennial Census, the Economic Census, and the Census of Governments, the Census Bureau conducts a number of monthly, quarterly, and annual surveys of households, institutions, and businesses that provide critical information about our nation’s economy, people, and institutions. The American Community Survey, the replacement for the decennial “long form,” is a national information asset, providing detailed information about the socioeconomic and housing characteristics of some 700,000 communities. Free markets and our democratic form of government depend on factual information that is relevant, credible, impartial, and trusted and the Census Bureau takes great pride in the fact that our statistics have long served as the cornerstone of the nation’s statistical information infrastructure.
Census Bureau statistics are widely disseminated and are available at no cost to nearly a million weekly visitors to Census.gov and through our mobile app, America’s Economy. However, the Census Bureau recognizes that our statistical programs do impose a cost on the businesses and households we survey – the time that it takes them to complete and file their forms. We do not take this reporting burden lightly. We have made it easier to report by providing online response capabilities for 61 surveys; we make extensive use of statistical sampling to reduce the number of households contacted; and, in the case of our business surveys, we use federal administrative records data in lieu of direct collection to reduce the burden on small businesses, while lowering the cost of data collection. Even in the years when we collect Economic Census information (years ending in “2” and “7”), less than 25 percent of our nation’s business locations receive a business report form, and in non-Economic Census years, less than 3 percent of business locations are surveyed.
During the nine years of the decade when we do not do a population census, less than 4 percent of all the households in the United States receive a household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. While the American Community Survey is the largest household survey conducted by the federal government, households that invest the 40 minutes or less it takes to complete the survey probably will not be contacted again by the ACS program during the rest of the decade, unless they move. The cooperation of these households permits the Census Bureau to provide businesses, consumers, local governments, policymakers, and the general public with relevant, credible, and consistent information they need to make informed decisions. The Census Bureau has some of the highest participation rates in the survey business because the Census Bureau is trusted; respondents know we will protect and safeguard the information they provide and that we only release summary statistics, further protecting the individual identity of any survey respondent. Nonetheless, not every household responds to our initial survey contact. To ensure complete and representative coverage, our skilled and well-trained telephone and field interviewers will contact households that have not responded, often multiple times, to obtain the requested information. We understand that some respondents may not understand the value of the information that we are requesting or may believe that the Census Bureau staff is too persistent in attempting to elicit a survey response. We respect these views and believe we must do a better job identifying and responding to respondent concerns.
In April 2013, I appointed Tim Olson as the Census Bureau’s first Respondent Advocate for Household Surveys. Tim’s job is a new one and a challenging one – to be the “voice” of our most valued resource – our survey respondents. Tim spent nearly 20 years working in the Field Directorate, which oversees the collection of information by our three telephone centers and our six regional offices, who employ nearly 7,000 field interviewers. Tim also played an important role directing our 2010 Census partnership program that included some 257,000 different organizations across the nation. The 2010 Census partnership program, through local organizations and trusted voices, helped convince reluctant segments of the population to participate in the 2010 Census.
Tim’s experience and personality make him uniquely qualified to represent household survey respondents, articulating their concerns and advocating on their behalf. In this role, he will work directly with respondents, telephone center staff, field interviewers, and congressional offices to identify respondent concerns and issues, develop metrics to categorize and track their concerns, and work with Census Bureau program offices to address them. Tim will also advocate for the respondent during multiple phases of the survey lifecycle, including questionnaire design, preparation of respondent communications and engagement materials, mode selection, and follow-up strategies. This is a challenging but very important position. I know that Tim will be an effective spokesperson for household respondents, and I am confident that he will help make the Census Bureau more aware and more sensitive to the concerns of our household respondents. While the Census Bureau continues to receive unprecedented support and cooperation from the American people, achieving a 97 percent response rate for the American Community Survey, we can and must do better. By voicing survey respondent concerns throughout the Census Bureau, highlighting their perspective with those designing surveys and collecting data, we can be more respectful of survey respondents while continuing to deliver the quality data our nation needs to grow and prosper.
If you are a household respondent and have concerns or suggestions about how we can do better, please contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not only is he a nice guy, he is also a great listener and knows how to get things done on your behalf.