Finding New Ways to Increase Response Rates of Census Bureau Surveys

The U.S. Census Bureau collects data about people and the economy. While most of us are aware of the decennial census that has been conducted every 10 years since 1790, the Census Bureau also conducts over 130 smaller-scale surveys of households and businesses, which are critical in providing important economic and social data that help in policymaking. 

However, the number of people who fail to participate in household surveys has doubled over the last decade. Now more than ever, the Census Bureau is looking for new ways to address respondent concerns and increase participation rates in household surveys.

This is no easy task, but our team of Harvard students was excited to jump in and help them find a solution. Over the last four months, we conducted over 30 interviews, ideated 100 prototype ideas, and tested 13 iterations of those prototypes, arriving at five final recommendations for the Census Bureau to address respondent concerns. Even though we didn’t know much about the Census Bureau at first, our “lack” of experience turned out to be our biggest advantage, enabling us to come up with out-of-the-box solutions that the Census Bureau might never have considered.

A Survey Respondent’s Journey

Typically, we think of completing a survey as a single point in time when a person responds to a set of questions. However, as we spoke with the Census Bureau and potential respondents, we realized that there are various points of interaction that a potential respondent has with the Census Bureau, beyond the act of filling out the survey. We divided these interactions into three stages: pre-survey, a person’s prior knowledge about the Census Bureau and the initial notification that their household has been selected for a survey; survey, the action of completing (or being pursued to complete) the survey itself; and post-survey, a person’s reflection on the survey and, by extension, the Census Bureau overall.

An overview of a survey respondent’s journey through a Census Bureau survey

Breaking down a respondent’s journey through the survey process into these specific stages and interactions allowed us to look carefully at how and where the Census Bureau is currently engaging with respondents. Further, as we ideated and tested new solutions, we made sure to map our prototypes across the entire respondent journey to see where we could create the most impact.

Our Recommendations

The Census Bureau currently has many effective solutions to help people who have been selected for a survey during the main survey stage. However, we recommend that they think bigger, connecting more with respondents during the pre- and post-survey stages to ensure that respondents feel supported throughout the entire process. In addition, as any American household could be selected for a survey someday, the Census Bureau should engage with the US population as a whole to build general goodwill and awareness about household surveys and the Census Bureau’s mission.

Our proposed strategy for the Census Bureau, with a wider approach on who to target and when to act

Based on our user testing with our prototype and conversations with the Census Bureau, we recommend the following action steps to expand their engagement:

  1. Implement behavioral science nudges in communication with respondents.
    When a household is selected for a survey, the Census Bureau sends a letter to let the residents know. To combat concerns about legitimacy and increase the likelihood that people see and remember the content of the letter, we recommend adding and highlighting motivating language that has been found effective by behavioral science research.

  2. Redesign the website with respondents in mind.
    The Census Bureau’s website has a lot of useful information for survey respondents, but it can be difficult to find answers to specific questions. A simple layout with less text that is readable on both desktop and mobile screens will help prevent information overload.

  3. Follow up after the survey.
    After completing a survey, people may have no idea what happens to their response or if anything even comes out of their participation. By following up with respondents after a survey about how their response makes an impact, the Census Bureau can generate goodwill towards the agency overall.

  4. Market the existing education curriculum.
    Lack of awareness about the Census Bureau and its surveys can cause people to hesitate to respond to a survey request. One important way to increase this awareness is to start early with primary and secondary school education. The Census Bureau already has a great curriculum for teachers to use, but it is not very well-known, so we recommend that the Census Bureau reach out to schools and other organizations to increase awareness and adoption of these lesson plans.

  5. Leverage the decennial census.
    The decennial census has a wide reach and recognition among the people. The Census Bureau should take advantage of the advertising or distribution of the decennial census to increase awareness of other household surveys.

Next Steps

Our group presented detailed findings for the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington DC in May. Our presentation can be viewed here . The team at the Census Bureau is already making strides in implementing some of our recommendations. We are excited that our efforts might influence respondents to participate in household surveys and help the American community.

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