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Adapting Field Operations to Meet Unprecedented Challenges

March 01, 2021
By Jennifer Reichert, Assistant Division Chief, Nonresponse, Evaluations, and Experiments, and Dale Kelly, Chief of Field Division

Even under ideal circumstances, conducting a census is an enormous undertaking. It involves hundreds of thousands of people and dozens of operations and systems—all with the goal of counting everyone living in the United States once, only once, and in the right place.

But as we all know, the year 2020 was certainly not ideal.

As we process census responses and analyze the quality of the 2020 Census, it’s helpful to look back at some of the unprecedented challenges we faced during this census, and how we adapted our operations to overcome these challenges and complete the count.

A Series of Obstacles

In March, right as households began receiving invitations in the mail to participate in the 2020 Census, the COVID-19 pandemic became the first in a series of significant obstacles facing the census.

The historic pandemic led to stay-at-home orders, social distancing requirements, and mask mandates across the nation. The pandemic forced us to temporarily cease all in-person field operations to ensure the safety of our employees and the public.

These delays compounded additional challenges. For example, we would normally have completed our in-person field operations before hurricane season was in full swing. Instead, we hit our peak operations as the nation faced multiple hurricanes.

Additionally, devasting wildfires, dangerous air quality issues from the wildfires’ smoke, and civil unrest and the resulting curfews all impacted when and where census takers could collect responses. 

Affecting the Public’s Ability to Respond

Not only did these circumstances challenge our ability to conduct the actual data collection operations, but they also impacted the public’s ability and willingness to respond to the 2020 Census.

As has been widely reported, people moved and relocated during this census at unprecedented levels. For example, colleges and universities closed their campuses due to the pandemic, which hampered our ability to reach students. Families also relocated to escape hurricanes and wildfires.

In addition, many people were less willing to engage with census takers because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus. For example, many American Indian tribes suffering greatly from the pandemic closed the borders of their reservation lands to help stop its spread. 

How the Census Adapted

Throughout the summer and early fall, leadership at the Census Bureau made daily decisions on which operations to resume or start and where and when to do so safely. That team made strategic decisions for each operation and geographic area based on whether it was feasible and safe to deploy staff for the field work. The decisions were data-driven, using real-time data from various sources such as the National Weather Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local and tribal governments.

To adapt, we provided additional opportunities for everyone to respond, including:

  • Deploying staff to places in low-responding areas to answer questions and help people respond to the 2020 Census.
  • Introducing phone calls instead of, or in addition to, sending census takers door to door to follow up with households that hadn’t responded yet.
  • Extending data collection by 2.5 months to allow more time for households to respond and for us to follow up with those that didn’t.
  • Expanding outreach through our more than 400,000 national and local partners and through national advertising to encourage the public to respond online, by phone or by mail or to cooperate with census takers.
  • Working with local tribal leaders to hire individuals already living on reservation lands as census takers.
  • Adapting our telephone operations to allow social distancing in the call centers and to permit callbacks when sufficient operators were not available due to COVID-19 restrictions.  
  • Sending teams of skilled enumerators from other parts of the country closer to finishing to areas lagging behind after hurricane damage.
  • Changing our field procedures to minimize necessary in-person contact with the public, such as leaving census invitations on mailboxes and training our enumerators to exercise social distancing during contact with respondents. 
  • Providing and encouraging electronic response options for group quarters facilities, such as nursing homes and detention centers.

Thankfully, the public could respond online and by mail throughout these challenges. In fact, we did not have a single minute of downtime for our online response option, and more than 80% of households that responded on their own did so online.

As a result of all these extraordinary efforts, we were able to account for over 99.9% of U.S. addresses in the 2020 Census. There was no “hurry up” in areas that were taking longer to complete enumeration; rather we moved staff to areas that were lagging in response to make sure we had a high-quality enumeration in all areas.

While we are proud of the 99.9% completion rate, we know it’s only part of the story and we are currently working to assess quality. We’re eager to see how well we counted the people within those addresses. We’re working to measure that now as we conduct the Post-Enumeration Survey, which we’ll talk more about in a future blog. Comparing the 2020 Census results with the Demographic Analysis will also provide insight.

Additionally, we will provide and analyze operational metrics at the state level that will reveal how we accounted for each address in the census. We’ll discuss this too in a future blog.

Last year was full of challenges for the nation and for the census. We adapted to complete the count and we will evaluate and share the success of those efforts and the census overall.

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