I did blog about the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey before, but I felt that my blog wasn’t enough. I decided to try and reach out to the government, some politicians, some political pundits, and even one political blogger to express my concerns. I’ve been sitting on this a while waiting for some more concrete replies, but there haven’t been that many. We’ll get to the replies in later posts, but first I (with Editing help from Dave of course) present to you the letter:
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Dear [Gub'ment Employee],
Thank you for taking the time to make yourself accessible via email and/or the web, and available to address my concerns. I realize that as a steward of the people and a government employee, your time is quite valuable. The point of my missive is speaking out against what I view as the waist of resources, money, and even time, so I will try to get right to the point.
Recently, I was notified via mail that I was a picked “at random” as a participant in the American Community Survey. Then, a week or so later, I received the survey itself. If it follows the same pattern as the 2010 Census, I will get two more notifications, and someone will show up at the door to ask me the questions even though it has been filled out and sent in. Barring any other concern about the 2010 Census and focusing on the ACS, this is what I (along with 3 million other Americans) received:
- Pre-notice Letter
- Introductory Letter
- ACS Questionnaire
- ACS Instruction Guide
- Frequently Asked Questions Brochure
- Follow-up Letter
- Reminder Card
- Outgoing Envelope
- Return Envelope
For my purposes I’d like to ignore (for the most part) the arguable statistical value of questions like when the building in which I reside was built, what time I leave for work in the morning, and how many people are in my car with me when I go to work. I do enjoy the extensive reasons for asking each question available at http://www.census.gov/acs/www/ – but *.pdf is a “clunky” way to present them. I would like to say that your reason for asking about the year my residence was built, “Age of housing is used to forecast future energy consumption” is flawed. If my building was built in 1920, but recently retro-fitted with new windows, insulation, and a new energy-star furnace and/or central air, it might be better off energy-consumption-wise than a house built in the late 60′s with all original water-heaters, furnaces, etc. (On a humorous note – remember the infamous man who had a baby a few years back? Question 24 instructs you to only answer if you’re female and have given birth. He would now be a man and would have given birth. This could not be recorded as instructed. Perhaps they ought to look at amending that in the follow-up survey 10 years from now?)
But, I did not intend my letter to argue the survey content. I would like to stick to what I believe is a more pressing and relevant issue, waste. Here is what I feel was wasted in the ACS mailings.
Paper: I am not a crazy environmental activist, and I even question the actual savings when related to energy consumption on recycling, but even I am appalled at the waste of paper here. That is three letters, a reminder card, the survey itself, a glossy FAQ brochure, and a 16-page “how to answer questions in this survey” booklet, plus the survey itself, and envelopes for all of the outgoing and return mailings except for the card times three million. The letters alone are 9 million wasted pieces of 8½” x 11″ paper. Think about that number. I don’t think I’ve ever seen 9 million of anything. The survey itself couldn’t have stated its purpose on the opening page without the need of a cover letter? Did we really need the 16-page guide on filling out the survey? Including the support phone number wasn’t enough? I am not even factoring in the ink and envelope glue here. It is 2010; I would think that most people have access to the internet or a telephone, even if it is someone else’s phone or the internet at a local library (which is still free in most communities, right?). Why not send out a post-card or registered letter instructing people to take the survey via the web or by phone? It can’t be much different from what has already been set up as a “support” to the paper survey.
Energy: How much energy was consumed in creating and transporting all of these mailings? Eliminating the “you’re going to get a survey” and the “you should have gotten a survey” letters alone would have saved so much effort and, I am assuming, electricity unless you have a warehouse full of employees cranking out these surveys on Ben Franklin’s old printing presses. Even the energy that went into the creation of this thing can be factored in. How much gasoline and jet fuel was consumed in mailing these surveys? So, under energy, we are wasting human energy/effort, electricity, and fossil fuels (unless every piece of mail was delivered by electric car from plants that do not use coal for electricity production).
Time: This concern is connected with the human effort element. How many people spent time on this? How many man hours were spent compiling the questions, deliberating on how to word them, which ones to use and in what order, writing explanations on why they’re being asked, layouts for those designed, extra pamphlets proposed, decided upon, and designed, websites built, toll free help-lines set up, etc? Then we have all of the labor; the actual creation of the paper, the printing, and the distribution? How many people will be sent out to ask follow-up questions? I’ll give you that my time wasn’t wasted in filling out the survey, and I’m arguably wasting more of my own time writing this letter… but what about my time wasted reading the “you’re going to get a survey” and the upcoming “you should have received a survey” letters?
Money: Certainly all of the people involved in this have been paid for their contributions; direct government employees are also receiving what I hear are excellent benefit packages. If contracted work was used, I’m sure they were paid prevailing wages for jobs done for the government. I’m sure the paper, ink, and distribution were not free. I know the government does not pay for mail sent via the postal service, but how does that work? Does it all actually go for free, or does the post office bill it out to the different government agencies per usage? And, if you believe the old adage that time is money, then see the preceding paragraph again. Shouldn’t taxpayers be able to vote on whether we’d like money to go into projects like this survey, or the more pressing social-programs that your survey professes to bolster once all of the information is gathered? What about something as simple as food for the hungry, medical care for those who can’t afford it, or subsidizing housing for the homeless? If money is going to infrastructure, why not ask the government employees about the road conditions that they encounter on the way to work on federal, state, and local levels?
While I do take a certain pride in being selected for performing a civic duty, I cannot help but wonder about the deployment of something like this on such a massive scale. I understand that one may feel that the collection of this data is imperative, but perhaps the process through which it has been undertaken can be reviewed. Perhaps the next time this survey is taken, eliminating so much paper will be a more viable option with new technologies appearing almost daily.
Thank you again for your time, I really do appreciate that you have made yourself available to read my concerns.
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I have no idea why I chose to use a pseudonym when the intent was to post it here anyway… but I did. I’d like to hear your thoughts before I post replies form others.