The senseless census

Census forms are to be mailed back this Friday, leading to a round of news stories and even paid advertising talking about the importance of participating.  If you received a form in the mail, you likely got a nice thick letter beforehand reminding you that it was coming; households that don’t return forms will get a visit from a census taker.   It sounds expensive because it is – especially if you fall into that category of having someone come to your door.  The census is estimated to cost $15 billion.  Since government projects tend to stay on track, that number surely won’t go up.

True enough, that tidy sum doesn’t represent that much of a dent in the budget, but couldn’t the census be organized a little better?  Isn’t it a bit surprising that it won’t be until 2020 – a quarter century after the internet became a big deal – that the census bureau figured out how to harness online communications to help count the citizenry?

Most organizations which rely on grassroots outreach have a tiered system, with online outreach as an initial step.  The first communication can go to a broad audience very cheaply, and those that participate online don’t require additional – and progressively more expensive – means of contact.

As an example, let’s say you are recruiting people for a political cause.  You might first reach out to that broad audience and invite them to sign up online.  Those that do can then be taken off the list.  Next, you might send them a piece of mail or two, then perhaps a live phone call, and finally, if all else fails, send someone to knock on their door.  At each stage in this simple example, you reduce your outreach list so that in successive stages you are spending only as much as you need.

Sending a postcard with a secure website address on it, where people could log on and answer the census questions, would be a good start to the census – and it could save millions in printing and delivery expenses of forms, letters, and other reminders.  It would have the additional benefit of painting a clearer picture of the national technological infrastructure, which would make broadband initiatives more focused.

Security of data is an important concern – and the one most often cited as an excuse for the census’s technological lagging.  Yet the IRS accepts tax return data online – which includes some of the same information.

The idea of an online census may be way off base; if that’s the case, I’d love to hear why.   But online communication is efficient, cheap, and secure – couldn’t any government program benefit from those qualities?

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