Social Government

Census Bureau Counts on Social Media in 2010

The U.S. Census Bureau kicked off a nationwide campaign this week to raise awareness about our Constitutionally-mandated, decennial headcount. Much is at stake over the next few months through the census process: from determining proportional representation in Congress to guiding federal funding (some $3 trillion over a 10-year period). And the success of the census, as it always has, will ultimately hinge on public participation. That’s why the Bureau is investing $300 million in a new nationwide tour and ad campaign.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

“The road tour, billed as the largest civic outreach campaign in the bureau’s history, features 13 vans that will bring census information and interactive displays across 150,000 miles for 1,547 days with 800 publicity stops at parades, festivals and such major sporting events as the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four basketball tournament.”

This is a great opportunity for the Census Bureau to leverage new Web 2.0 technologies in its outreach (particularly to help avoid under counts, as one organization pro-actively points out). The Times explains that Bureau is “bringing Twitter, Facebook and other 21st-century technology to the centuries-old exercise.” Each vehicle of the tour, according to a press release, will have its own Twitter handle and users can “track the tour online as it happens and through daily social media postings.” That sounds great.

However, it seems that the agency is off to a poor start. Despite gearing up to interact with more than 300 million Americans, here’s what the social networks of the agency (some of which came long before the 2010 push) look like at this point:

Perhaps you can’t judge an agency by is followers. But it’s 2010, and by any standard, the Census Bureau is behind. Less than two years ago it scrapped plans for hand-held computers that could have saved taxpayers some $3 billion, and, as a little icon on it’s Web site reminds visitors, “NOTE: THE [CENSUS] FORM CAN NOT BE FILLED OUT ONLINE.”

This is from an agency that, as NextGov’s Alan Balutis wrote, carries out “one of our nation’s most important statistical, financial and political exercises.” He asks during the fallout from the hand-held computer controversy, “Where was the Census CIO?” That question persists to this day, especially since the agency’s own mission statement touts its “readiness to innovate.” Where is the innovation?

Granted, Census staff know it’s coming, recently confronting the issue on its blog:

“We are looking both at new tools of data collection that make it easy for people to respond and tools that can guarantee that information people provide can be kept confidential. We have to worry about both. It’s easy to predict that there will be many generations of technologies suitable for data collection invented over the coming years. The Census Bureau needs to stay on top of these developments to fulfill its mission to the taxpayers efficiently.”

To its credit, it also has followed through, to an extent, on a promise to relaunch that includes “include additional information resources and an online newsroom that contains interactive and social media elements.” The site is flashy and easily navigable. It has a compelling interactive feature where visitors can view video content that explores “real life stories that make up America.” Unfortunately, the load time is slow and one can’t easily share these stories across social networks. While there seems to be an effort, the agency still has far to go.

Our first census was carried out by U.S. Marshals riding on horseback in 1790. And while 2010 might seem like the modern equivalent, some more encouragement from citizens and oversight by Congress might just do the trick in 2020.

What do you think? What are some ways the Census Bureau can embrace Government 2.0 to more effectively do its job?

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