Thursday, March 21, 2013

Report-back: The second NAC meeting

 On March 14-15, 2013, I attended the second in-person meeting of the NAC in Washington, DC. At the meeting, I reconnected with other NAC members. Our three working groups presented some of our ongoing work and the Census Bureau presented information about a few topics. In this post, I’ll briefly outline some of the meeting’s content, provide links to further information about the content, and offer a few reflections.

Bear in mind, the underlying context for the Census Bureau’s current work and the NAC’s advising is one of economic and financial distress. Congressional actions are mandating the Census Bureau cut the costs so that it can deliver Census 2020 at roughly the cost of Census 2000. That’s a major budget cut. And Congress still ostensibly expects the Census Bureau to deliver quality information products and improve the Census’s ability to count poorly-counted populations (aka “hard-to-count” or “hard-to-reach” populations).

The meeting’s agenda mainly comprised presentations by Census Bureau employees or the NAC’s three working groups. (I’ve included links to information from the presentations, if you’d like to review what was presented.)

Census employees presented on the following topics:
  1. 2020 Census Update
  2. Ways to Optimize Self-Response in the 2020 Census (slides)
  3. Census Data Tool Demonstration (slides).  (This included a tour of the new version of the American FactFinder tool, which you can use to find answers to Census-data related questions (e.g., “What’re the rates of home-ownership in my county, for each racial group?”))

The NAC’s three working groups presented on the work we’ve done, so far.
  1. Administrative Records & Third-Party Data (AR-TPD) (slides)
  2. Race & Hispanic Origin Research (slides)
  3. Small Populations in the American Community Survey (slides)
Now a bit of commentary.

As with the first meeting, the second meeting had a lot of presentations. But the things I valued more were the time that my fellow members and I eked out to connect and to discuss things -- and the constructive criticisms that we were able to coordinate and present to the Census Bureau.

For example, NAC members challenged the Census Bureau to involve the NAC in setting the agenda for our work -- rather than having the Bureau be the primary agenda-setter. Some of us reiterated questions that arose during the first NAC meeting, back in October 2012: Does the Census Bureau expect the NAC to only focus on the Bureau’s priorities? Or is the Bureau prepared to hear from the NAC about other priorities; things that the Census may not currently be giving high priority? I’m still trying to figure out how to balance addressing the Bureau’s issues of interest (where they’re asking us what we think they should do) with addressing issues that the Bureau isn’t currently so concerned, but that I think it SHOULD be addressing. After all, the NAC’s function is to be a set of outside advisors to the Census; sometimes that means telling the Bureau things it may not want to hear or asking it to do different things, rather than just asking it to do the current things differently. It’s one thing to advise someone on how to row a boat differently; it’s quite another to say, “You’re rowing pretty well, but the boat isn’t pointed in the right direction.”

As a second example, NAC members also asked the Census Bureau to change up the format for the meeting. Currently, the in-person meetings are a lot like a lecture-based classroom. We sit and listen while various people present Powerpoint slides. At the end, we have a few minutes to ask questions or discuss. Then, we’re on to another presentation. That’s not how I like to organize my own classes -- and it’s certainly not how I’d organize things if I wanted to hear my students thoughts, prompt them to ask questions, or get them to dig in and discuss something. If you want someone’s advice, I think it’s better to spend more time listening to them than presenting to them. The Bureau presents us with a lot of information -- and much of it is information we need to make informed decisions or advise well. But several of us suggested that, if the Bureau wants to make the most of the in-person meetings and hear what we have to say about that information, then we need to change the format of the meetings. We asked that the Bureau give us the presentation materials before the meetings (e.g., in digital files or web-based presentations); that way, when we show up to the meeting, we’re already prepared to discuss the presentations and to ask questions of Bureau employees. As it is, it’s not easy to formulate good questions or have a thoughtful discussion about something you just finished hearing a presentation about.

So, having expressed some of our constructive criticisms and asked questions about the process, we’ll see how the Census Bureau responds and whether it makes such changes for the future meetings. As it is, the Bureau already responded to a request to reschedule the third NAC in-person meeting -- now, instead of being on Halloween of 2013, the third meeting will be October 17-18, 2013.

In the meantime, the NAC working groups will be meeting monthly via telephone, to work on our three current projects.

If you have comments or questions, please post them in the comments section, below -- and/or email me at CensusNAC (at) gmail (dot) com.