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How the Census Bureau Built Trust in Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William D. Eggers and Donald F. Kettl
August 4, 2023

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts recommended steps individuals could take to protect themselves, beginning with masks. But the experts knew that strategies like masking and social distancing would work only if other people joined in.

Many people, however, refused to follow these recommendations. They just didn’t trust the advice they were getting. This profoundly affected how COVID-19 spread. A recent study in The Lancet showed that countries with greater trust in government had lower infection and mortality rates from COVID-19.

More and more, 21st-century problems are sure to create such society-wide issues, especially as the planet’s population rises to more than eight billion people. From the climate crisis to antibiotic-resistant bacteria to economic inequality, responding to big problems is sure to bring more challenges that can only be solved collectively by people who trust each other and their governments.

Trust in government, however, is increasingly rare. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just 31 percent of Americans trust their government, which puts the United States between Lithuania and the Czech Republic—and half the level of the Scandinavian countries. To solve the problems we face—and the ones looming ahead—we need to do something about this.

A surprising recent success is the work of the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census is a patriotic undertaking, one of the few governmental functions actually required by the Constitution. It provides vitally important data that informs everything from drawing the maps of congressional districts to allocating budget dollars. Despite depressions, world wars and the Civil War, the Census Bureau has faithfully completed its task every ten years since 1790.

In 2020, the agency’s challenge was two-fold: First, it faced a pandemic that limited its ability to gather data. Second, and potentially of greater long-term concern, there were widespread rumors—false, of course, but sometimes even spread by elected officials—that the survey was collecting citizenship information to share with federal law enforcement agencies.

Trust is at the very core of the Census. It is entirely voluntary, and its accuracy relies completely on honest answers. In 2018, long before COVID-19 erupted, one in four survey respondents worried that their personal information wouldn’t be kept private. A quarter of respondents said the odds were close to zero that they would participate. This was the deep pit of distrust that the Census Bureau faced.

Its subsequent campaign to build trust sets an example for all federal agencies.

The Census Bureau had practiced for a wide range of scenarios, so its teams adapted quickly to the pandemic. The bureau launched a Trust and Safety team to chart how best to respond to Covid. The team employed social listening tools to investigate threats against Census workers, misinformation and scams, as well as how Census workers could safely move through communities.

When they found misinformation, they fought it at the local level. Census partnered with over 400,000 organizations, ranging from giants like the American Library Association and the American Association of Retired Persons to small ones like a coalition of California nail salons. When misinformation started spreading across particular neighborhoods, they were able to identify and counteract it directly. “The corner store on the street where I live had a huge ‘Participate in the 2020 Census’ sign up,” said Zack Schwartz, who ran the Trust and Safety team. “My barber up the street had the same sign up. That gives you some idea of the breadth of our partnerships.”

The neighborhood app Nextdoor took down misleading posts. The Federal Trade Commission cracked down on Census phone scams. The Census Bureau advertised on pizza boxes.

The push for trust reached the one in four Americans who had planned to ignore the Census. Eventually, 99.98 percent of addresses in the United States responded, and the rate at which individuals returned the forms even beat the numbers from 2010.

Among Americans, 62 percent view the Census Bureau favorably, even though they distrust government in general. The secret sauce: building direct relationships with communities allowed the Census to develop its own brand, distinct from larger political battles. Census and its digital partners aggressively combatted misinformation, catching it early before misinformation snowballed into inaccurate conventional wisdom.

Most important, the Census Bureau managed the very first task in earning trust: being trustworthy. The Census has delivered accurate, honest data and protected the privacy of respondents for over two centuries. Because the work the bureau does is unabashedly dedicated to its mission and the public interest, it was easy to sell.

As intractable, complex problems increasingly require coordinated solutions, it will be vital for the public sector to learn how to build trust. It might be tough to move the needle on government-wide trust. But public agencies can learn a lot from the Census on how to earn it, one important step at a time.

Authors: William D. Eggers and Donald F. Kettl are co-authors of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems. This article was written under the auspices of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

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