Census Bureau expands use of ‘this thing called the Internet’

The Internet age is finally taking root at the Census Bureau, which just last year conducted the decennial census with pen-and-paper forms for people to submit by snail mail.

The agency has been using the Internet to collect data for some small surveys, most dealing with statistics about business, retail trade and government expenditures. By the end of this year, it expects to expand its online surveys to a total of 60.

The Census Bureau is now testing Web-based questionnaires for the American Community Survey, which replaced the old long form and is conducted monthly now. And the 2020 Census should be accessible by laptop, smartphone or any other new devices that have yet to be introduced to the marketplace.

“We’ve committed to the 2020 Census having Internet options,” Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves said in a telephone interview before he testified before a Senate subcommittee Wednesday about census initiatives and lessons of the 2010 Census. “I say options, because the set of devices we will use to access this thing called the Internet will be quite diverse. We have to make sure we don’t commit too early so they’re outmoded.”

In his prepared remarks, Groves portrayed the agency he heads as being at a crossroads. Demand for census statistics is increasing at a time of budget cuts, falling numbers of people willing to participate in surveys, and rising costs.

“We at the Census Bureau know that we must innovate if we are to remain useful and relevant to the country,” he said. “Further, we know that this innovation is not likely to be funded by added resources; we must become more efficient.”

Groves, who developed a worldwide reputation as a statistician when he headed the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, was confirmed to his position two years ago. At the time, the Census Bureau had lost much of a luster burnished in earlier decades when it had a reputation for creativity and innovation. It commissioned the first punch-card machine to enter data, and the first computer.

But the census stuck to old-fashioned paper forms even as other countries — such as Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Singapore and Brazil — started collecting census data on the Internet and smartphones. Canada, for example, first offered a Web-based census option five years ago.

“We couldn’t face the Canadian public in the year 2006 and say, ‘You can’t complete your census online,’ ” said Ivan Fellegi, Canada’s chief statistician emeritus.

About 20 percent used the Internet in Canada’s last census, about half as many as are expected to respond online for the next census, later this year, Fellegi said. It saves money when 30 percent reply on the Web, he said.

Fellegi is one of several people in government and academia whom Groves has sought advice from as he makes sweeping changes in Census Bureau operations and culture.

Many veteran employees have spent decades working in one of the nine directorates. Under a new policy, statisticians hired this year will be required to work in several departments in their first years on the job, aiming to introduce fresh thinking and keep employees challenged.

“We want to move folks around the organization, sharing best practices and different perspectives,” said Tom Mesenbourg, who, before he became deputy director in 2008, had spent 36 years at the Census Bureau working in the department that collects economic statistics.

In another initiative, Groves asked employees to propose common-sense changes. Groves and Mesenbourg personally read all the hundreds of suggestions that poured in.

Some were greenlighted with little discussion.

A lot more internal communications are now sent by e-mail, instead of the Postal Service, as dozens of employees recommended. In an example Groves said was his favorite, a census interviewer in Rhode Island wrote Groves that an E-Z Pass would save on tolls, but his supervisor told him he wasn’t authorized to get one. Now, census field workers can buy E-Z Passes if it saves money.

In addition, Groves has approved money for the development of a dozen programs that, in the long run, will save millions of dollars

For example, the cost of building software to keep track of addresses known to be vacant will be offset because the bureau won’t have to keep mailing notices and dispatching interviewers to vacant homes.

Groves said that more changes are needed if the Census Bureau is to survive.

“Bob is getting us into the 21st century,” said Katherine Wallman, chief statistician at the Office on Management and Budget, another person whom Groves has consulted. “Most of us are on Facebook, or tweeters or bloggers. To have paper and pencil and a telephone seems antique to a lot of people. We need to move forward.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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