It is a reality in the business world that everything is becoming more data-driven. We get more and more data on customer preferences and behaviors. We augment our own (first-party) customer data with other companies’ (third-party) data, and we use advanced data analytics to find patterns, spot trends, improve targeting and evaluate outcomes.
In such a digital data-driven world, the decennial counting of noses known as the U.S. Census may seem irrelevant or outdated. But, in fact, the data that the Census Bureau collects—both in its decennial count and in its annual American Community Survey (ACS)—have never been more important to business constituencies.
Nearly all of the commercial databases that allow businesses to be so “data driven” require benchmarking to solid population parameters. This is especially true in cases when we are trying to understand (or make claims about) the broad national population, but it is also true when we are merely trying to get a good fix on small or local market segments. Almost invariably, samples and databases need “truth sets” that serve as benchmarks to evaluate the quality of the dataset and provide a basis for statistical adjustments.
And this modeling depends, to a large degree, on data collected by the Census Bureau.
The decennial Census and its annual ACS counterpart are the mother of all universe estimates—the most fundamental anchors underpinning so many marketing, media, and CRM databases. So this is not a good time for the U.S. Census to go wobbly. Yet that is the concern.
In 2014, Congress demanded that the 2020 Census cost no more than the 2010 Census (without any adjustment for inflation) – a constraint that caused the cancellation of some important tests targeted at hard-to-count populations both in rural areas and in central cities. The Trump administration cut the budget request for the Census Bureau by another 10% and the Director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, resigned. In the wake of all of this disruption, the General Accountability Office recently designated the 2020 Census as a government program at “high risk” of failure.
To his credit, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, recently went back to Congress to argue for an immediate supplement to shore up the planning and testing required for 2018—especially for the first-ever use of online forms for basic data collection. Ross also indicated to Congress that the 2014 stipulation of keeping spending flat to 2010 levels is not realistic and proposed spending that would amount to a $3.3 billion increase.
Historically, the U.S. Census has been conducted in a manner that is highly professional, apolitical, and as accurate as demographers know how to make it. At a time when American businesses need rock-solid benchmarks for their increasingly complex data integrations, we should ask for nothing less of the Congress and administration overseeing the 2020 Census.
McDonald, S. (2017, Dec. 6). A 2020 Census Flop Would Pose a Danger to U.S. Business. Forbes.