Just over a month remains before millions of households across the country receive letters instructing them to fill out the 2020 census.
At the center of that effort is Tim Olson, a Minnesota native orchestrating field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau. Olson, who was raised in South St. Paul and Lindstrom, Minn., oversees details from data collection and regional offices to household mailings.
He spoke with the Star Tribune about preparing for the first real online census, promoting turnout in a difficult political climate and what it takes to send mail to every household in the country. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This is the first census relying primarily on online responses. How confident are you that the system is going to be ready to go without being dogged by glitches?
A: The systems that we have developed for 2020 have been tested over and over and over. Not only for interoperability, but for load testing and for penetration testing. We’ve had outside experts evaluate our system to try to find problems. We have had professional hackers that we’ve hired to literally come in and try to hack our system. We’ve had so much attention given on our side to making sure the system is reliable and it’s secure.
In the IT world you can never guarantee anything. Any true IT professional will tell you, ‘Don’t say nothing bad will ever happen.’ That would be an incorrect thing to say. But I can say with a high degree of confidence that our systems will be available and they are secure.
Q: Is the Bureau concerned about dampened participation in 2020, given distrust in the federal government and the publicity around the citizenship question — which is not on the census?
A: We will know when it’s done, right? But our projection is that we will have a fairly comparable self-response to 2010.
But to get there is a much greater lift. And that lift is in our communications campaign, with advertising — not only through digital advertising, but social media advertising — in multiple languages. That is bigger than it was in 2010. And our partnership effort — this is with local community groups that we engage to get them to be trusted voices — that campaign is double the size of what it was in 2010.
Q: Minnesota had one of the highest mail participation rates in the country in the 2010 census. Does the state face any unique challenges in this process?
A: The self-response rate in Minnesota, in Wisconsin, in Iowa, has always been historically some of the highest, if not the highest in the nation. So that just means fewer households for us to follow up with during nonresponse operations. I believe that that trend will probably continue in 2020. Minnesota will be at the very upper echelon of self-response.
The challenges in Minnesota, though — which is true for every state, but I think it’s part of Minnesota — is you have an increasingly diverse population. For immigrant families or households, getting them to feel comfortable participating in the census [is important]. Getting them to intuitively know that that response that they provide is confidential — it can’t be shared with immigration authorities or IRS or local code enforcement. It can’t be used to harm them in any way. And on top of that, it’s really important for their community’s future in terms of funding and political representation.
If communities can get those messages out, it bodes well for a good census.
Q: You oversee the mailings to households that will soon go out. Can you describe the breadth of that massive operation?
A: It’s a big endeavor. We have been using census data to determine which tracts are more likely to need a paper questionnaire vs. are more likely to respond online. If you’re in an area that has a little bit older population, or does not have a high enough saturation of broadband access, we are going to be sending you a paper questionnaire in the first mailing. Versus other areas we know from the data that we can send the invitations and urge people to go online or respond over the phone.
So we are putting all of this together and then printing millions and millions of questionnaires and each questionnaire is specific to a household.
All of the printing is done. And at this point we are just finishing up the addressing of each mailing package. Once they get in the mail stream, the in-home delivery commitment is that as early as March 12 — and then over about an eight- to nine-day window — at the end of that window every household in the U.S. will have received their invitation to self-respond.