Census Innovations During COVID-19

As the 2020 census begins gearing up, governments and local partners have had to make a quick pivot on outreach strategies

Harvard Ash Center
Apr 17, 2020 · 3 min read
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced public life to come to a halt across much of the United States, carefully laid plans for carrying out the 2020 Census were upended. April 1st, which marked Census Day, a key reference date for the Census used to determine who is counted and where for the 2020 census went largely unremarked as the public’s attention was focused on the rising health and economic toll caused by COVID-19.

With nearly half of US households yet to respond to Census questionnaires mailed out earlier this spring, Census officials as well as countless other state and local governments and advocacy organizations working to help facilitate an accurate count are scrambling to revise their outreach strategies. John Joanino Harvard Kennedy School Masters in Public Policy student previously served on the California Complete Count Committee where he was charged with developing and implementing an outreach strategy for the 2020 Census. “None of us could have anticipated the impact that a global pandemic would have had on our decennial census,” said Joanino during an online discussion on innovative approaches to conducting the 2020 census during the COVID-19 crisis sponsored by the Ash Center’s Democracy Programs.

“The Census Bureau and civic organizations have been planning on the proper execution of the dieccennial census for years. As information about COVID19 emerged, their playbooks required quick pivoting to ensure a full count,” said Teresa Acuña, Associate Director of Democratic Governance Programs at the Ash Center, who spearheaded the event and much of the Center’s work around census issues.

As 2019 drew to a close, advocates fretted about several potential threats to the census, from underfunding the massive personnel and information technology infrastructure necessary to achieve an accurate count to attempts to include a controversial question about citizenship status in the census questionnaire itself. “Planning around a global pandemic was not an issue anyone could have anticipated, but the value of particpating in the census has been underscored as government resources are needed to save lives from COVID19,” aid Acuña.

In California, a state which had already committed significant resources to census outreach activities, state officials and advocates have had to quickly pivot. “We had over three thousand questionnaire assistance centers that were in the neighborhoods, that were placed with trusted messengers, whether clinics or at schools or libraries. And all of that has been scrapped,” said Ditas Katague, Director of the California Complete Count — Census 2020 , an outreach and communications campaign to ensure an accurate count of the hardest-to-count Californians.

Instead, advocates are adopting campaign-style tactics to build awareness about the census. “There are a lot of civil society groups right now that are looking at peer-to-peer messaging, text messaging, phone banking, those kinds of things that you might normally see with GOTV type activities,” said Georgetown University Beeck Center’s Kyla Fullenwider, the former chief innovation officer at U.S. Census Bureau.

Cities and states too will have to scale up their digital efforts now that much of the traditional census awareness campaign playbook has been scrapped. Joanino praised Philadelphia officials for sending out emergency text messages to city residents urging them to fill out newly mailed census questionnaires and arguing that doing so would help with the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery. “Local city messaging really does have the most impact because what we’ve seen from message testing research for the last several years is that one of the most important messages that people need to hear is how the census impacts their community,” noted Fullenwider.

“The Census has never been the flashiest thing,” Acuña admits. But as life for so many across the country has been changed in previously unimaginable ways it’s perhaps more important than ever to remember that, “the census is one of the most important cornerstones for our democracy.” Figuring out how convince Americans of that in the age of social distancing might well be one of the biggest challenges in the modern history of census.

COVID-19 Public Sector Resources

A resource center, curated by the Ash Center at Harvard…

COVID-19 Public Sector Resources

A resource center, curated by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, for public sector practitioners to highlight cases, teaching, policy solutions, and other examples of how governments are responding to the outbreak

Harvard Ash Center

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Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

COVID-19 Public Sector Resources

A resource center, curated by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, for public sector practitioners to highlight cases, teaching, policy solutions, and other examples of how governments are responding to the outbreak

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