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As 2020 Census Approaches, Guidance Abounds for Local Gov

There is an increasing number of guidebooks, manuals and informational events aimed at helping municipal governments, nonprofits and community groups support the Census Bureau conduct this year’s count.

Key Bridge
The Key Bridge and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Kyla Fullenwider, who was the first chief innovation officer for the U.S. Census Bureau, recently helped author a new guide for local governments working to help support this year’s Census.

Fullenwider did so in her current capacity as a Georgetown University Beeck Center fellow, lending her expertise to the The 2020 Census: Digital Preparedness Playbook, which aims to help local governments prepare for a coming count in which they have what Fullenwider described as “an unprecedented level of responsibility.” This is because the count will determine billions of dollars of federal funding as well as political representation at the federal level for the next decade. At the same time, there has been an unprecedented modernization of communication means since the 2010 Census that local gov and its partners must deal with, Fullenwider said.

This year marks the nation’s first high-tech Census, a far cry from when tech engagement for the bureau used to involve mailing pencils to respondents. 

“That’s a big shift when you’re talking about a massive modernization effort that has to reach every single person in this country,” Fullenwider said.

This is a big part of the reason that Fullenwider and her collaborators — a group that includes Code for America, the National League of Cities, and the National Conference on Citizenship — have created the playbook. The playbook, she noted, is rich with case studies related to what has worked in cities nationwide that are trying to reach hard-to-count populations.

The information inside the playbook tackles subjects like misinformation, bridging the digital divide and others that are relevant for the first time because of the high-tech Census. It’s also all laid out in easy-to-digest language, tailored to busy elected officials and their staffers, who for logistical reasons don’t have the time to pore over the many academic reports on the challenges facing the Census, Fullenwider said. 

Fullenwider and the Georgetown Beeck Center, however, are not alone in their efforts. There are many other similar projects coming to light, with mere weeks remaining before the counting begins in earnest. Indeed, with the 2020 U.S. Census rapidly approaching, there is an increasing number of informational resources aimed at helping local government as well as the nonprofit and community organizations on the front lines of the count.

One such resource is a U.S. Census manual created by the Digital Equity Laboratory for libraries and other community groups. The authors described that resource as “a learning guide meant for anyone who intends to work with communities towards a complete count during Census 2020.” 

That manual contains a curriculum that the lab has created following expert risk assessments as well as a series of pilot workshops that it held across New York state, and it aims to equip Census stakeholders at the community level with info and tools to ensure their jurisdictions are counted. 

The rollout of such projects is also likely to continue right up until the Census’ official start in April. Code for America, for example, is holding an informational discussion of viable civic digital strategies for the Census at its annual summit, which is set to begin on March 11 in Washington, D.C., just one day before the Census Bureau releases its first-ever Internet response option to the public.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.