IT workers with census map


Census 2020: How IT can help with local counts

Every 10 years, the federal government counts the entire U.S. population through a short demographic survey. Not only is this count the basis for political representation, the census guides the distribution of nearly $900 billion of federal funding for state and local government over the next decade. The 2020 census is fast approaching, and state and local agencies are (hopefully) getting ready.

How can government IT teams help ensure a smooth process? Following are some frequently asked questions about the census, along with tips for state and local technology teams for helping ensure a full and accurate count.

What does the census entail?

This count officially kicks off on “Census Day,” which is always April 1. The vast majority of households in the U.S. will get a mailing on or around this date asking them to complete an online or paper census form. Some households in remote areas will be visited by census workers who will also make in-person visits to any household that does not respond to the census mailer in the first month. The enumeration wraps up by the end of the July, and by the end of the year, the Census Bureau releases a population count to Congress.

Why is the census such a big deal?

If an area’s population is undercounted because not all its residents complete a census form, it puts that community at a representative and funding disadvantage that lasts 10 years. Also, many businesses and other organizations base their planning on census data, as it is considered the best source of truth on the U.S. population.

Isn’t this a federal thing? What is local government’s role?

The U.S. Census Bureau centrally manages and conducts the actual count. Local governments are charged with two key tasks: First they must update the address list that is used to conduct the census under the Local Update of Census Addresses process (which already occurred in 2018), and, most crucially, they must encourage every household to complete a census form. The Census Bureau provides significant resources for local governments, but cities and states fund outreach themselves, often with the help of foundations and other nonprofit partners.

We do this every 10 years. What’s different this time?

First off, this is the first census in which people can submit their responses online. More fundamentally, response rates to mail and phone surveys, as well as overall trust in government, have dropped precipitously over the past decade, leading to concerns about how difficult it will be to get everyone to respond to the census. If large numbers of people do not respond, we may not have an accurate count of the U.S. population.

I have heard a lot about the citizenship question. What's the big deal about putting just one more question on the census?  

The content of a survey can cause people to refuse to complete it -- especially if a question seems invasive or too personal. There is a broad consensus among social scientists that the addition of a question on citizenship runs a high risk of depressing self-response rates to the census.

Who is in charge of the census effort at the local level?

Nearly every state, city and county will participate in what’s called a Complete Count Committee, which comprises both government and nongovernmental community leadership and focuses on ensuring the entire local population is counted. Many jurisdictions will name a census outreach coordinator, which may be new position, or a temporary role assumed by a current staff member. Government agencies are often assisted by nonprofit organizations and foundations with connections to particular populations of interest for outreach.

What is the IT need?

IT teams may need to merge data from different sources to help understand the population of an area -- especially in communities generally less likely to respond to surveys (i.e. those with many young adults or low English proficiency). Local census leadership might need help evaluating technology providers, or setting up digital tools for community partners assisting with census engagement. Additionally, the online census form has raised concerns from some about information security. IT professionals can help outreach experts understand and contextualize these concerns and interpret technical information.

How can I help?

Ask for an introduction to the census coordinator/leadership or the Complete Count Committee to see how you can help. At the city level, the mayor’s office for the city planning department will know who is leading the census effort. At the state level, check with the Secretary of State’s Office, the Office of Local Government Affairs or the Governor’s Office. If local action organizations do not yet have a plan for addressing the 2020 census, help leadership understand the need to be prepared.

As with any large undertaking, technology will be a huge part of making the 2020 census a success. By understanding the importance of the effort, IT teams can help ensure a fair and equitable count for their communities.

About the Author

Amy Deora leads the public sector practice at Civis Analytics.

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