As 2020 Census hiring ramps up, bureau expects ‘swimmingly successful’ field operations

A week out from the official start of the 2020 Census, and about two months out from when most households will get the chance to respond, the Census Bureau has ramped up its recruiting efforts for temporary, on-the-ground work that begins this spring.

Al Fontenot, the associate director for decennial programs, said Tuesday that the bureau expects 60%-65% of self-responding households will complete their questionnaires online. This marks the first decennial count where every household has the opportunity to respond via the internet.

“We think that this new technology is a quantum leap in conducting the 2020 Census,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

The bureau, however, will still need to hire as many as 500,000 temporary enumerators to knock on doors of households that don’t respond to the census after receiving five notifications through the mail. Enumerators will begin their work in mid-May.

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To make that many hires, the bureau needs to recruit 2.7 million applicants.

“Recruitment and hiring of personnel are critical to count every person. We must build the team to do the job,” Dillingham said.

Tim Olson, the bureau’s associate director for field operations, said the bureau now has 1.7 million applications and is bringing in 25,000 new applications every day.

Government Accountability Office officials told Federal News Network that’s up from 1.1 million applications in November.

Vetting for temporary staff includes a fingerprint and an automated background check that Olson said only takes a few minutes.

“If somebody’s got a clean record, bingo, we can onboard them literally within a matter of days. I’m feeling very confident — the fact that we are getting such a large applicant pool right now — that as we begin that hiring process, our field operations are really going to be swimmingly successful,” Olson said.

Positive updates on decennial hiring efforts stand in contrast to a management alert the Commerce Department’s inspector general issued in November, warning that hiring and payroll systems failed the final stages of performance and scalability testing this summer, and “were unable to perform at the scale needed to support decennial census peak recruiting.”

The bureau disputed the IG’s claims and said the report “appears to rely upon an outdated draft testing document and is no longer current.”

More than 20% of applicants are bilingual, mostly speaking English and Spanish, but Olson said the total applicant pool speaks more than 450 languages and dialects. Across the country, the bureau will have 248 area census offices, and has hired 5,000 temporary recruiters.

More than 120 million forms needed

Nearly all households will receive their first notice about responding to the 2020 census in the mail in mid-March. Households that don’t respond to the 2020 count before mid-April will receive a paper questionnaire through the mail.

Fontenot said the bureau’s contractor for printing 2020 Census forms, RR Donnelley, has finished work on more than 120 million forms needed for the count, and said the company has “additional capacity” to print more forms if fewer households respond online or over the phone than expected.

During an end-to-end field test in Providence County, Rhode Island last April, the bureau found that 60% of respondents opted to respond online, while only 6-7% responded over the phone. The rest responded through a paper questionnaire.

Citing concerns about the “digital divide” and varying levels of internet connectivity in the U.S., the bureau has partnered with the American Library Association to provide public access to computers to respond to the census.

The bureau will also have seven times as many personnel to assist with self-response efforts, including hard-to-count populations, than it did in the 2010 count.

“This new technology, I think, is so important and makes such an important difference for much of the nation. Not just for efficiency, but for reaching the hard-to-count communities,” Dillingham said. “We can now take the laptops and the cell phones and go directly into those communities. We can go to the soup kitchens, we can go under the overpasses. We can go wherever these hard-to-count populations are.”

In-person counts still necessary some places

For all of the bureau’s latest technology, its personnel will begin the 2020 count next week the old-fashioned way, with an in-person count of Toksook Bay, Alaska, a remote fishing village with about 660 residents.

The bureau begins its count early in this rural location because the frozen ground in winter makes it easier for enumerators to reach the village. A lack of reliable mail service and low internet connectivity also require an in-person count.

“Different places have different challenges,” Dillingham said. In Alaska, enumerators travel via small planes, boats and snowmobiles to reach communities.

Olson said the bureau has hired all of the personnel it needs to conduct the village enumeration.

As part of its nationwide outreach efforts, the bureau has built a network of more than 8,000 complete count committees, made up of community organizers committed to maximize census self-response in their area.

The bureau has also built a network of 170,000 national and community partners, and Fontenot said the bureau will have 300,000 partners before peak census operations.

“They are the trusted voices, they are parts of the community. They know the specific needs of those communities,” he said.

The bureau’s advertising campaign will ramp up next month, reaching 99% of American households, and will focus on how data from the decennial count decides how billions in annual grant dollars are spent, as well as funding for hospitals, schools and emergency response services.

“The campaign is an unprecedented effort to make sure everyone understands its importance and its potential impacts,” Dillingham said, “Responding to the 2020 census helps to shape everyone’s future.”

A new outreach approach

Kendall Johnson, executive director for the bureau’s 2020 Census Integrated Communications Contract, said the bureau has given a different approach to its ad outreach, citing increased mistrust in government.

A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that the public’s trust in the federal government had reached its lowest levels since it began measuring in 1958.

Meanwhile, the Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Study (CBAMS) the bureau released in October 2018 found that nearly a quarter of respondents were “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that the Census Bureau would share their individual responses with other government agencies, which is prohibited by federal law.

Nearly 30% of respondents to the CBAMS survey expressed similar concerns over whether the Census Bureau would keep their responses confidential.

Johnson said public survey response rates have also declined since 2010.

“I think it’s just the overall apathy of participation, but survey rates have been declining every year, but we’re hoping that our campaign, which is extremely robust and really steeped in research that will really encourage people to respond at a much greater rate,” Johnson said.

A fragmented media landscape has also led the bureau to tweak its ad outreach. Digital media, Johnson said, now only makes up about 30% of its total ad buy.

“We are looking at reaching people where they are, in the media that serves them the most, using the messaging that is most desirable for them,” she said.