They Should Make It: Online Census Form Submission

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This is “They Should Make It.” It’ll appear here every Tuesday and will contain some really mind-bending ideas for products and services that don’t yet exist—but should! You may not agree with my ideas, and that’s okay. It’s not like we’re taking a road trip together or anything.

This week’s topic was a dead simple choice. I just got my Census form in the mail and they want me to fill it out (with a pen!) and return it (by mail!). “They” being the Census Bureau, the same people who spent $133 million on an ad campaign to full of TV commercials urging people to mail their forms back (by mail! and pens!) with the promise that “for every percentage point increase in the 2010 Census mail-back participation rate, the Census Bureau saves about $85 million in follow-up costs.”

Know what else could save a lot of money? The internet. Particularly when mixed with the 2010 Census! The Census Bureau (and, by extension, tax payers) would save a bundle on postage costs, pen costs (ink is not free!), and return postage costs. Oh, and paper costs! Paper is used to make the envelope, the return envelope, the fold-out Census form, and the one page leaflet included with the Census form that tells me that my answers (that I have to fill out with a pen!) are both important and confidential. Last but not least, all the information would already be in digital format which would make it easy to tally. I don’t know if these forms have to be looked over by humans or if they’re fed into some room-sized Scantron machine but even feeding the paper forms into a machine takes more time than having a web based form.

Sour grapes? Perhaps. But mine is a paperless household. Whenever I’m on the phone with someone (which I try to avoid because of how much easier it is to contact people via the aforementioned internet), the person invariably asks me if I have a pen with which to write down some obscure string of letters, numbers, and symbols so that when my important payment doesn’t get credited to my account, I’ll have a record of the phone conversation. Again, the internet sidesteps all of these problems. The average time wasted by customer service representatives waiting for me to find a pen is unfathomable. That is, it cannot be fathomed.

The 2010 Census website is very nice! Whoever put that together must have been like, “You know for the money you’re paying me, I’ll throw in a quick PHP form that allows people to respond right through the site.”

And some guy with a pager and two pens in his pocket said, “Instead, on the ‘Questions You May Have’ section of the site, put a question that says ‘Can I fill out the form online?’ and make the answer ‘No, not at this time. We are experimenting with Internet response options for the future.’ Make sure to use the word ‘experiment’ because it’ll make everything sound very complicated.”

And the web guy would say, “It’s seriously so easy a baby could do it. I don’t mind at all. It’ll take like two hours.” And he’ll look up and see that the pen man has already gone on break, probably to Roy Rogers or Big Boy or some restaurant that nobody goes to anymore.

So they should make it. An online Census form. I’d be happy to make it for them. I know PHP, it’s not that complicated. It’d literally take me longer to find a pen. As it stands, I’m probably going to have to order one from Amazon.