e-Census Unplugged: Why Americans Should Be Able to Complete the Census Online

February 1, 2008
ITIF analyzes the decision made by the Census Bureau to eliminate the Internet response option and concludes that allowing respondents to submit their survey online would have saved taxpayers' money.

In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau established itself as a digital pioneer by making the United States one of the first countries to use an Internet-based data collection method for its population census. Through this project, the United States demonstrated that it was a global leader in using information technology (IT) for e-government. Unfortunately, though, citing various challenges, the U.S. Census Bureau has cancelled all plans to use the Internet for data collection in the 2010 population census. The Census Bureau has also opted not to implement an Internet response option for the American Community Survey (ACS), which has replaced the long form used in the decennial census.

The Census Bureau’s decision not to provide an Internet response option for the census was made in part because the Census Bureau asserts that Internet data collection will not increase response rates or lower data collection costs. In addition, the Census Bureau argues that introducing an Internet response option could pose new security risks. Yet a closer look at the Census Bureau’s arguments shows little basis for most of its claims. Internet-based transactions are generally less costly, more accurate and can be more secure than their paper-based counterparts. The Census Bureau itself experienced generally positive results in its earlier tests of an Internet response option, yet it failed to fully explore how most effectively to implement a similar approach in the 2010 Census. Our review of the census data collection methodologies used by government statistics agencies in countries other than the United States shows that other countries, including Canada, Norway, and Australia, have far surpassed the United States in the use of the Internet to conduct the census.

Government agencies in the United States should be embracing the use of IT where it can provide more efficient and effective services. We recommend that Congress mandate that the Census Bureau recommit to a strategy of technical leadership and develop e-government solutions that are appropriate for our digital society. To take advantage of the benefits of Internet-based data collection, we specifically recommend that the U.S. Census Bureau do the following:

  • Provide an online data collection option for the next decennial population census after 2010 and the American Community Survey.
  • As a matter of policy, provide an Internet response option for all major household surveys that allow a paper response.
  • Promote the Internet survey response option as a secure, low-cost, and time-saving option.