Time to Eliminate the Census

Michael Vizard

The U.S. government is in the middle of a massive project to count every American as part of a once-a-decade effort to figure out how to distribute services and allot representatives in Congress.


This exercise can trace its lineage back to ancient Rome, when the emperors needed to figure out how much to tax various elements of the empire based on the number of people and the goods and services being produced.


Back then, the process obviously needed to be manual. But today we live in a digital age. In fact, the government already has the information it is trying to collect in the form of tax records and other government documents. So rather than spending millions of dollars collecting that information again, maybe that money would be better spent integrating all the systems that already have the information the government needs.


In fact, by the time the U.S. government collects, organizes and analyzes the census data, a huge portion of it will be out of date. Would it not be preferable to generate a census every six months to a year simply by aggregating all the data we already have?


Robert Dolan, worldwide industry executive for business analytics in the public sector at IBM, says governments around the world are making huge strides in information management. They are still limited by declining tax bases in terms of the number of IT projects they can fund, but Dolan says there are many examples where "Smarter Government" is starting to take hold. They include:

  • Savings of $256 million a year at the U.S. Army's Armament Research Development and Engineering Center by employing business intelligence software to improve workflow.
  • More than $11 million in savings generated by a more efficient approach to managing social services in Alameda County, Calif.
  • A city-wide business intelligence system in Albuquerque, N.M., that resulted in a reduction of administrative overhead that created a 2,000 percent return on investment.


In the grand scheme of government spending, these savings are small potatoes. But they show what can be done. So maybe the time has come to try something really massive in scope like reinventing the census system in a way that could not only save billions of dollars, but also create a more efficient government that could respond to changing demographics more than once every 10 years.



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Apr 8, 2010 2:53 AM Bill Bill  says:

Spot on. We are counting a 21st century country with 18th century methods. Time to dump the quill pens, parchment and pocket watches and deploy technology and data mining to accomplish the census in real-time and to automate it.

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Apr 8, 2010 3:22 AM Ken Knowles Ken Knowles  says:

When you consider that the Constitution only requires a count of the people, the extra information they collect is unnessary for the "census".  Statistical sampling can be more accurate than actual counting and would eliminate the problem of not participating in the census.

However, that would mean it would cost a lot less, and those that don't understand the method would always question it.

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Apr 8, 2010 5:55 AM maverick maverick  says:

It seems to be the wont of this nation's thought leaders to take a simple process and then complicate the hell out of it using the twin tools of technology & statistics/mathematics and shrouding out the details into "approximations" or "estimates" And then one fine day we all realize that there is a problem but we cannot do anything to fix it other than to throw more money at the people who initially created the problem. We have seen this most recently in the financial debacle.

Even though the current process has many things that can be improved it is simple. If we can put in a well though of and robust automated system that will be accurate, uncomplicated & will not give the feeling of being constantly watched by "big govt" then the author's idea may have some merit. Else the integrity of whatever data we collect would be questionable

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Apr 8, 2010 11:41 AM Steve Janssen Steve Janssen  says:

Mike, interesting idea. But, as there there is much money to be made, represented by all the constant reminders that are seen in various advertising venues (TV, print, etc), the extra post cards sent out (received one less than two weeks after turning in the census form), and not knowing how much fraud is going on (always some when government is involved), attempting to aggregate all the data that is already available, will probably result in other spending that may equal or exceed current costs until the process is refined.

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