6 Citizen-Focused Steps Census is Taking to Improve the 2020 Count

Maria Dryfhout/Shutterstock.com

Officials hope improving the customer experience for citizens will boost the participation rate for the Census Bureau’s biggest undertaking.

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau undertakes one of the government’s greatest and oldest challenges: tabulating the number of people and homes in the country as Thomas Jefferson first did in 1790.

As the national headcount in 2020 approaches, the Census Bureau is investing and improving in its customer experience to increase the citizenry’s participation rate. The more people who participate in the decennial census, the more accurate the data that will help shape federal funding and political power—including apportionment of House seats—for the coming decade.

“It’s about power and money,” Census Bureau Assistant Director of Communications Stephen Buckner said Thursday at the Adobe Digital Government Symposium.

The bureau is modernizing its approach to technology and communications as it preps for the 2020 census. Perhaps the most notable change from previous decennials is the availability of an online questionnaire for Americans to complete, Buckner said. The website—2020census.gov—is expected to increase participation rates among Americans. In 2010, the nation achieved a 74 percent final mail participation rate, meaning more than a quarter of the population didn’t participate.

Beyond the online option, Buckner outlined six steps the Census Bureau is undertaking to improve its digital experience, which he said will, in turn, improve the quality of data comprising the next decennial census.

The first, he said, is investing in analytics. Adobe is one of the firms helping the Census Bureau make more sense of the data it has.

“We’re a statistical agency, but we had to figure out how to better use our own data,” Buckner said.

The second and third steps involve creating customer journey maps, or “putting yourselves in the shoes of your customers,” Buckner said. When agencies journey map, they examine how different kinds of customers—or personas—seek services or data, and assess their roadblocks and successes.

The use of personas allows insight “through the lens of users” to drive design, as opposed to designing a tool, service or technology and hoping people find it useful. The Census Bureau examined four key kinds of personas: partners (which includes hundreds of thousands of organizations, including schools, local governments and tech firms), educators, media and respondents. Bureau officials then mapped how each one engages with the agency.

And just as customer insights help design the next iteration of design, new rollouts are A/B tested to ensure they’re easy to use, effective and generally what people want instead of some disappointing version of it.

“How do we make a unique experience to everyone who visits the site?” Buckner said.

These journey maps are integral because they ultimately help the Census Bureau with the next two steps, creating a responsive design and personalized experience. For example, Buckner said the number of people accessing Census Bureau content has quintupled since the 2010 census. As a result, Buckner said the bureau is going mobile-first.

“No experience in today’s world can be about a desktop view,” Buckner said. “The majority of people access information from cell phones or a mobile device of some sort.”

Buckner said the Census Bureau has to respond to a growing number of people searching for information via voice assistants, a technology that was barely in the government’s lexicon in 2010 but is a mainstay today among consumers.

Finally, Buckner said the Census Bureau is investing in content because “tech can only get you so far.” The Census Bureau has hired former journalists to tell stories through the bureau’s data, including how opioid use has affected communities across the country. This kind of content is “adaptable” to the times, Buckner said, and not fixated on a specific moment.

“We’re mining through data beyond the press releases we put out,” Buckner said. “You have to have great content.”