A Lesson in Rejection: Researching the Household Survey Experience

Augusto is 58 years old. He moved to the United States in 2008, and he isn’t very comfortable with English. When asked whether or not he would respond to a mailed request to complete a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, he said, “I have to be careful. I need to understand the question and what it contributes to and what improvement is needed.”

There are many people like Augusto in the United States who have reservations about answering these demographic surveys. However, the Census Bureau needs their information to provide up-to-date statistics about the American population to allow organizations to make informed community decisions. How can the Census Bureau ensure that people are aware of logistics, details, and support options for their surveys? How can they address concerns around legitimacy? Our team of Harvard students is working with the Census Bureau to help them find an answer.

Understanding the People

We approached these questions from several angles. We looked into existing research from the Census Bureau about attitudes toward the 2020 Census and connected with five experts to learn more about the inner workings of the Bureau. We also spoke to two field representatives, whose job is to knock on selected residents’ doors to administer in-person surveys. They shared their perspective on how and why people do and don’t answer surveys:

  • major challenge that field representatives face is silent refusal. People may set up meetings with the representatives, but then they don’t show up nor respond to follow-up communication. This response is more common than a hard no, and it wastes time and resources.

  • Field representatives may have difficulty accessing respondents at their homes in certain neighborhoods, such as apartment complexes, gated communities, and rural households.

Most importantly, we reached out to potential respondents—since every U.S. resident could someday receive a survey, we have a very broad user base! We interviewed 27 people across the Cambridge area, learning from their reactions to our simulation of being selected for a survey, as well as their previous experiences with filling out the decennial census or other demographic surveys. To ensure we heard from people with a diversity of backgrounds, varying in gender, age, race, education level, and employment status, we visited transit centers, convenience stores, laundromats, and public community centers, as well as stopping people on the street.

Demographic overview of our interview sample

Demographic overview of our interview sample


While every person we spoke with had a different and nuanced experience, when we looked over the interviews together, we discovered the following common concerns:

  • Legitimacy of the survey, process, and interviewer is a major concern of census respondents.

  • Lack of awareness of the purpose of surveys or the Census Bureau’s work often leads respondents to be disengaged from the survey process.

  • Respondents are worried about privacy and potential data breaches that may result in misuse of personal information.

  • Mood and competing commitments decrease the respondents’ likelihood of answering a survey.

  • Growing distrust in democratic systems deter respondents from taking part in government-related events, including surveys conducted by the Census Bureau.

Next Steps

From here, we’ll brainstorm and prototype solutions to address the needs that we uncovered from our initial research. Then, we’ll talk to more people like Augusto and test to what extent our prototypes improve their experience with household surveys, using their input to provide final recommendations to the Census Bureau. We can’t wait to continue our work!

Alison Chen, Jessica Nunez, Mahesh CR, Tiffany Yu, & Vishnu Rajeev