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Transparency is essential for a successful 2020 Census during the COVID crisis

Transparency is essential for a successful 2020 Census during the COVID crisis
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With the Census Bureau slowly re-starting field operations, it’s a good time to take stock of the level of transparency needed to mobilize the nation for a complete count in these times of COVID. 

We have long known that the 2020 Census will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. Counting those who are hardest to reach (people of color, complex households, families with young children, LGBTQ individuals, etc.) requires the Census Bureau to coordinate with organizations these populations trust. With this in mind, the bureau has cultivated a national network of thousands of Complete Count Committees and Partners. These nonprofits, faith organizations, local governments, businesses, and community-based organizations serve as trusted voices to reach communities skeptical of the census. 

I know first-hand why transparency matters during crises. After the levees failed and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, the recovery effort was massive. It required the government to lead and bring these same stakeholders together as director of Enterprise Information for the City of New Orleans. 

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It was my responsibility to help build a common base of shared information from which to start. We published unprecedented amounts of data about the city’s operations, giving community stakeholders the information they needed to help advance the recovery. Open data became an engine of coordination and community innovation that was essential for revitalizing storm-damaged neighborhoods.

As the United States looks to recover from this pandemic, the census data being collected now will be critical. Historically, more than a third of households don’t self-respond, requiring census takers to collect responses in person if possible. 

However, the quality of the data is better when people respond on their own, and follow-up field operations are expensive-more than half the total estimated cost in 2020. Minimizing field operations is also now a public health imperative. We can shrink the need for in-person interviews if more households fill out the form themselves by phone, internet, or paper.  

COVID-19 has massively disrupted the bureau’s decade-long planning. To their credit, the career professionals are adapting, but so too must their partners. These frontline organizations urgently need more data about the bureau’s operations to make their efforts complement those of the bureau’s, rather than working at cross-purposes. 

For example, local census partners are spreading the word that residents who need help filling out the form can call the Census Bureau. However, if the bureau were to share data on call volumes, then partners could tell residents when the best time to call is, rather than clogging up the phone lines and causing long wait times that discourage residents from completing the process. Complete Count Committees and Census Bureau Partners need that type of data in an open format so they can incorporate it into their own carefully planned outreach efforts. 

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The Census Bureau has already taken great strides to turn transparency into collective action. They publish a map of all Complete Count Committees to help volunteers find a local get-out-the-count effort. Their “Recruiting Goals by County” map helped local organizers identify candidates for census jobs. And most visibly, the bureau publishes updated self-response rates daily for areas as small as a neighborhood. A whole ecosystem of users has emerged around this open data, with mayors competing against each other for the highest response rate, and 56,000 visitors so far to CUNY’s open-data-fueled Census Hard to Count Map.  

To counter the disruption brought by the virus, the Census Bureau should double down on its success with data transparency. This way, civil society can align efforts with the agency’s and make sure that all people are counted — safely. 

 What type of data would be most useful?

  • Continuing the daily flow of self-response rates and adding weekly analysis on response rates for specific hard-to-reach populations like children ages 0-5 and renters to hone partner outreach messaging

  • Completion rates for the non-response follow-up workload so trusted local messengers can encourage participation

  • Group quarters workload completed by type of facility (nursing home, college dorm, correctional facility, etc.) and by state, so state and local officials can provide support for sectors falling behind in the count 

  • From the census call centers, hourly wait times by language line, and the most common questions from callers, such as “when will I get my paper form?”

  • If the bureau needs more workers, recruiting goals by county with needed demographic characteristics and language skills to empower local organizations to identify candidates

Government transparency is typically thought of as a tool for accountability. Perhaps its highest purpose, though, is as a tool for enabling the government and civil society to work together to accomplish goals otherwise unachievable. Getting a fair and accurate count for the 2020 Census during a pandemic is exactly that type of challenge.

Denice Ross is a senior fellow with the National Conference on Citizenship and Georgetown’s University Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. She is a former Presidential Innovation Fellow, co-founder of the Police Data Initiative, and launched the City of New Orleans open data initiative.