ACS. Tordella noted his sincere personal belief that “there should be some people in Congress who hate the census and everything it is about—just to keep the Census Bureau on its toes.” But there are many other members of Congress for whom the ACS only exists—to the extent that they recognize it—as a source of “continual pain,” the source of those complaints from constituents.
From his conversations with congressional staff members, Tordella said that he concluded that there is a feeling out there that the Census Bureau is doing little to alleviate the perception problems with the ACS. “Press these congressional staffers about the idea of a voluntary ACS and the cost and quality implications, and their response is, ‘You fix it.’” Use cost savings from Internet data collection, or work out some new methodology, but “just go and fix it.”
With that in mind, Tordella suggested that one possible solution—or at least “a place to start”—would be for the Census Bureau to recognize that “respondents really should be king.” Newspapers have ombudsmen to take readers’ perspectives in mind and challenge editorial approaches—Tordella asked “why shouldn’t the respondent have an ombudsman” appointed at the Census Bureau? There are mechanisms within the Census Bureau that serve to protect respondents’ rights—a chief privacy officer and a Disclosure Review Board, for instance—but those are little understood (or appreciated) by the public. A highly visible ombudsman and a citizen’s advisory panel, “where people feel like they can be heard,” could go a long way to improving perceptions of the ACS.
Tordella then briefly displayed some recent screenshots of the Census Bureau’s homepage to suggest that “there should really be a lot made on the website about respondents.” On the particular day he visited the site, one of the four “top stories” on a few-seconds rotation at the top of the page actually did speak to respondents: “Your Response Makes a Difference for Small Businesses” read the headline, above a link to more information about the 2012 Economic Census. That is good, but seemingly a one-shot deal—if you have received a questionnaire from the ACS or some other survey you have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and find, in small type, the link “Are You in a Survey?” in order to start having your questions answered. He argued that the placement of the link has probably been tested in some way—“Census tests most things”—but he concluded that it ought to be much easier for respondents to find supporting information, to find justification for the questions they are being asked, and to feel as though their concerns are heard.
He closed by nothing that these kinds of “respondent relations” steps might not alleviate all of the complaints, but that the Census Bureau could still benefit from them—and learn from the examples of other agencies. Arguably, he said, the federal agency “that has the most teeth and the most penalties and the most influence over the American people” is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which went through a substantial modernization in the 1990s. That modernization succeeded, he said, not solely through upgrades in information technology,