04/09/2013 03:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Data for a Brighter Democracy

The U.S. Census Bureau, an agency of the Department of Commerce, conducts the Decennial Census, which is hard-wired into the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, the name fosters the misperception that bureau staff conduct the Decennial Census, twiddle their collective thumbs for nine or so years and then suck it up and do another census.

To be sure, the Decennial Census is an amazingly complex operation. The information it provides is important on many dimensions -- politically, for determining the representation of states in the U.S. House of Representatives; fiscally, for determining financial allocations to localities for many government programs; and socially, for providing a localized demographic snapshot of the country every 10 years. Pulling the census off well requires high-intensity research and development in intervening years, and there is no time for thumb-twiddling.

The Census Bureau is much more than the Decennial Census. As the largest government statistical agency, it conducts myriad other censuses and surveys, each providing crucial information to the public that tells us who we are, what we are doing and what is changing or needs to change -- from neighborhood to municipality, region and nation. Knowledge generated by government statistical agencies like the Census Bureau forms the backbone of our information society, essential information for economic recovery, job creation and local economic development. For example, did you know:

  1. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS), which has replaced the Decennial Census "long form" and so is mandatory, is an important and timely source of information about health insurance, commuting patterns, the built environment and much more. The ACS is an ongoing survey that collects information continuously throughout each decade. It is a national information asset and the primary source of small-area statistics about our society, used by businesses and governments in planning for infrastructure development and other societal needs.
  2. The Census Bureau conducts the Economic Census and collects a wide range of data from business and governmental organizations. These support computation of the gross domestic product, productivity estimates and producer prices. The bureau produces 13 economic indicators that take the pulse of the U.S. economy.
  3. The bureau does approximately 300 million in survey work for other federal agencies, including the Current Population Survey for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a principal source of monthly unemployment data -- a key economic indicator if ever there was one. It also conducts the National Health Interview Survey for the National Center of Health Statistics, a major survey of public health. Objective, nationally representative information about health is crucial for an informed debate on health care.
  4. The bureau produces small-area estimates of income and poverty used by the Department of Education to allocate billions of dollars in aid to local school districts?

The Census Bureau faces challenges and must innovate to maintain quality and increase efficiency. For example, survey nonresponse is increasing, and some are irritated by the mandate to answer questions in the ACS they find intrusive. Favorite bugaboos are questions about when you go to work in the morning, how many toilets you have in your house and disability.

However, Census Bureau employees have no interest at all in individual responses; indeed they are subject to jail time or large fines if they breach confidentiality of their respondents. The answers really matter; the data provide the factual basis for implementation of government programs. Without question, for the U.S. to maintain its leadership position in the face of global competition, we need to make smart decisions, and these require good information. Mandatory response produces a high response rate and valid information. Validity would be severely threatened if responding were voluntary.

A host of other issues are informed by data from the ACS and other government surveys. These include measuring the efficacy of government programs, assessing the impact and insurance costs of climate catastrophes, deciding where to locate a new Target store, planning municipal mass transit, understanding and addressing health disparities and redistricting in a way that meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. The surveys need people like you to take the time to answer the questions posed. This information does not grow on trees -- you may find it on the Internet, but the underlying source is often a census or survey. Without them, the information is out of date, distorted or made up.

It's not a stretch to say that official government statisticians are guardians of our democracy. The Fundamental Principles adopted by the United Nations assert the basic importance of official statistics for "any society that seeks to understand itself and to respect the rights of its members." In the absence of transparent, objective data about our society that is free of political influence, opinions can dominate. Information confers power, and trust is essential. Stakeholders may not like the numbers, but most will acknowledge that Census Bureau data are objective and valid.

Research by federal statistical agencies is essential to increase efficiency and effectiveness of data collection, and the Census Bureau has a storied history in research. W. Edwards Deming started his explorations of quality improvement at the Census Bureau; the earliest large-scale digital computers were at the bureau; Morris Hansen and others developed landmark, practical approaches to probability sampling. Issues are increasingly complex, and cutting-edge research by statisticians, computer scientists, operations researchers and social scientists is needed on Internet-based data collection, combining information from survey responses and administrative records, designing and implementing survey protocols that adapt to local circumstances in real time, protecting confidentiality, providing reliable estimates for small geographic areas and small demographic domains, developing clear and relevant survey questions and effectively communicating via web-based tables and graphs and easy-to-use apps.

Census Bureau staff are much more than bean counters. They produce "big data" and create the trusted information base for our free society. Visit the website,, and see for yourself.

Rod Little is the Richard D. Remington Collegiate Professor of Biostatistics in the school of public health at the University of Michigan. From 2010 through 2012, he was the U.S. Census Bureau's first associate director for research and methodology and chief scientist. Tom Louis is professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; he currently serves as associate director and chief scientist.

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