Social Distancing Part 4 - When Government (Almost) Gets It Right

So it has come down to this. A topic I thought I would never, ever write about here. But, through a series of mostly COVID-19 related events, here we are.

Politics. Specifically, the United States Census.

It happens every 10 years, but honestly I’ve never given it much thought. As with voting, time has a way of grabbing your attention at moments that used to just pass by.1 Because I had some extra time on my hands, I even applied to work at a local office in my district. For whatever reason, this exercise didn’t pan out. Also, this was before coronavirus, when you could do amazing things like actually work with other people in the same place without social distancing.

It started on YouTube. I don’t know if they’ve done it in the past, but the people at Sesame Workshop put together a short video2 to encourage everyone to respond to the Census. Popular culture tends to depict the process as kind of a drag and an artifact of a bygone era, so getting everyone on board requires getting a little creative.

The result is brilliant. Short, to the point, free of political bias, and presented in a way that makes even little kids feel like they’re part of the process.3

With “stay-at-home” orders in place the past few weeks, it became clear that people wouldn’t be canvassing the neighborhood anytime soon. That raises the question, ‘could the government actually pull this off online?’

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes - with the exception of one quirk I’ll get to in a moment. Just go to the website and click “Start Questionnaire”. Like they say, the process literally takes 10 minutes and anyone should be able to get through it.

Looking at the site’s design, it seems to be the work of the USDS, who, along with 18F are trying to keep the Federal government's technology infrastructure in running order. In some ways, I’m reminded of the UK’s equivalent, GOV.UK, although the US hasn’t yet put all of its sites under one roof. When so much of government feels like it’s in disarray, it’s good to know there are at least a few experts left, even if their work goes unnoticed most of the time.

That is, until I clicked submit — whereupon the site deleted my responses and made me start all over again.

  1. A Twitter thread explains some of my own voting history and the shift in mindset that occurred.

  2. They also have a microsite up with a bunch of resources on COVID-19.

  3. Although YouTube was around in 2010, I suspect it - and social media as a whole - hadn’t yet become an integral part of how brands reach their target market.