Podcast: Census 2020 in an Age of COVID-19 with Lorena Molina

Posted on April 7, 2020


Lorena Molina-Irizarry

Lorena Molina
Director of Operations
Census Open Innovation Labs
LinkedIn | Bio


Outreach and operations during a pandemic. Lorena Molina, the Director of Operations for the Census Open Innovation Labs, joined the podcast to give an update on how Census 2020 is being impacted by COVID-19. She also shared outreach tools and the value of continuing to share the importance of completing the Census during this time of uncertainty.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt

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Learn More

Census Open Innovation Labs Website

Creatives For The Count Website


Episode Transcript

Kirsten Wyatt

Coming to you from Portland, Oregon. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government. GovLove is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network, and we engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Kirsten Wyatt the ELGL, co-founder and executive director, and today I’m excited to welcome back to GovLove Lorena Molina, the Director of Operations for the Census Open Innovation Labs. Welcome back to GovLove.

Lorena Molina

Thanks for having me. Happy to be back.

Kirsten Wyatt

We had a chance to talk about Lorena’s work with the Open Innovation Labs last year to learn more about the creative ways that the US Census Bureau was engaging people to ensure a complete count on the 2020 census. Now she’s back on GovLove to update us on how census outreach operations have been going and have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what local governments can do to help communicate the importance of the census, when it seems like everyone’s minds are somewhere else. First, let’s get started with a GovLove signature and lightning round. So what is a food that everyone likes but you don’t?

Lorena Molina

I will have to go with olives. I’ve never liked them even though I’ve tried.

Kirsten Wyatt

All kinds of olives?

Lorena Molina

All kinds of olives. I can pass black olives like in sandwiches or you know, because they’re not the main ingredient, but just olives in general. Yeah.

Kirsten Wyatt

What is your favorite font?

Lorena Molina

That’s a really good question. Um, I use a lot of Google Docs and there’s this one font called Poppins. It has so many variations, and it’s crisp. And so yeah, I will go with that one. It’s not in Word though.

Kirsten Wyatt

Okay. So you have to be a Google Doc user to find it.

Lorena Molina

Yes.

Kirsten Wyatt

All right, and what is your best self-care tip in this time of quarantine and social distancing?

Lorena Molina

Well, there’s so many. I would have to go with my top two, continuing my meditation practice in the morning, before I start anything in the day, and I recently upgraded from PJ’s to leggings, [laughter] and that makes me feel [laughter] on a daily basis.

Kirsten Wyatt

That is a good upgrade but still comfortable. So I mean, if you’d said you were wearing like a full suit at home, I would have been, I would have I would have thought you were lying.

Lorena Molina

Well, you know, at the top, a lot of conferencing happening and video conference meeting. So at least changing pajama pants to leggings as making me feel a little bit more [laughter] professional during these days.

Kirsten Wyatt

I appreciate that. So for our listeners who may have missed our last episode with, share with us your role with the Census Bureau and the career path that you’ve taken to get there.

Lorena Molina

So I’ve been with the Census Bureau for a while, coming up in 10 years. But in this capacity with the Census Open Innovation Labs, I am the Director of Operations and founding member of the team. And we’re pretty much a startup like team, very nimble and agile where we essentially look at implementing innovation practices across the board, but looking at new ways of collaborating across different industries. So we really look at open innovation from a lens of looking outside of our own walls and knowing that the federal government we can’t do everything ourselves. So we have to tap into the power of the crowds and you know, in group think and leverage the expertise that industry brings and nonprofit sector Third Sector, academia and really anyone out there in the community that are facing facing challenges. We essentially look at problem solving from a very creative way with open data being at the center of that. We also and we can speak a little bit more about this in terms of our work of the 2020 decennial support work that we also look at, how can we crowd source and how can we help people in the community to empower themselves to develop compelling messaging and be part of that trusted voice in the community to do their work. So within the Census Open Innovation Labs, we run, you know, to various accelerator programs, so we really just want to tap into the open collaboration across industries, both in the tech media and entertainment space, but also across government and across all federal agencies.

Kirsten Wyatt

And so times have substantially changed since the last time we talked. So share with us what the last two, two and a half months of your work has been like?

Lorena Molina

That’s a good question. It has been a whirlwind, of course, because of our current environment. We have been working for years on getting, you know, everything prepared and set up for the decennial census. As you know, it only happens once every 10 years. And it’s the basis of our democracy. You know, it informs so many decision points across all levels of government and in the business sector. You know, it determines representation in Congress, it determines how federal funding is distributed across all levels of government, states and cities. So it’s a huge effort. And I think a lot of people don’t necessarily recognize that when they think about the work that we have been doing, you know, it’s not just the last two months, but the last couple of years actually. However, in the last couple of months as we have adapted to our new reality, we’re just really looking for opportunities to to deploy the right message in the right way through the right lens and the right messenger, which sometimes we, you know, we forget sometimes, you know, trusted voices and nonprofits and our local government and elected officials as trusted, you know, voices in the community have much more power to to convey how important this census is and what we can do on our own. So the last two months have been really about amplifying our reach in terms of who do we engage with. We work with a lot of creatives, we have an entire program just dedicated to garner the collective manpower, if you will, of creatives across the nation to help you know, local grassroots organizations, nonprofits, even you know, cities and states to really get the word out there and how important the census is. So that has been a lot of our work. And recently I would say in adapting to our new reality is shifting from, you know, in person convenings and engagement to a fully virtual environment which, which definitely comes with challenges, but it’s also opened the doors for opportunities on how we can reach people online.

Kirsten Wyatt

And so this is the first time the census is taken entirely online, correct?

Lorena Molina

Well, that’s also one of the things that we like to kind of dispel, and I think there’s a lot of information out there the we did take a first online first approach for the decennial census this time around, but it’s, it’s not required to respond online. There are various modes of responding so people can respond online by going to 2020census.gov. But they can also respond by phone and this is also the first time that a decennial census takes responses over the phone. Right now we have 10 call centers across the nation and they’re taking, they’re supporting in language as well. So there’s 13 languages in total that are supported through our call centers. And of course, through the traditional paper forms. So since March 12, most households received the invitations to respond with what we call a census ID, which is a code and they could have got online, you know, using the code and responding on behalf of the household, but they could still submit their responses through the phone and through mail. So all households have those three modes of respond options, and if they don’t respond in the future, then they will be visited by, by an enumerator or as we like to call them a census taker. And of course, the current environment has shifted on those timelines a bit but we are encouraging people to respond online over the phone or just mailing back their form.

Kirsten Wyatt

And how have some of your approaches and techniques and tactics changed in this COVID landscape? You know, obviously, you already had in place, the online and the phone tools. But when we think about the census takers and we think about some of the other outreach that you had planned, any adjustments that you had to really make kind of midstream in those last couple of weeks, and anything that local government should be aware of, that might be different than what you are planning, you know, pre COVID?

Lorena Molina

Yes, that’s a really great question. I think the census as an operation is actually composed of more than 37 different operations when you think about them. You know, at scale, we have a group quarters operation that essentially count people in in group quarters, which those are hospitals, you know, nursing homes, colleges, universities, prisons. So those operations look a little bit different than for the traditional household across the nation, right. So that is the first thing that census took a look at is those in person and online responses that would have been received, expecting people to be in a particular location like students. Students, as in college students is a great example. And actually, that operation did shift a bit. And this our new timeline is actually on 2020census.gov. If you want to take a look at that. And just as an example, the originally planned schedule for, for college students and the group quarters enumeration was from April through June, and it has shifted a bit in terms of a couple of weeks. And counting students is a particular challenge because of the closing of institutions of higher education, of course, these students that would have normally been counted, where they spend most of their time. At the reference date of April 1, they’re no longer in their college dorms or near college or university, they actually are back at home with their families. So there’s a lot of shifting that needs to happen in terms of how we’re communicating this and our how our partners are communicating this to ensure you know that college students are counted in the right place. And in general, because of COVID, you know, it impacts this process and even if they’re at home on census day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residents criteria, which states that they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time. So we’re asking institutions of higher education to contact their students and remind them to respond or they would have been in on April 1, otherwise.

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, and up until schools closed ELGL has been running our Inspire programs on campuses, and we have built into our communications this need for students to report where they live, you know, meeting on their campus. And that became part of what we wanted to share with them. And then also conveying the importance of the census. What I’m hearing is that perhaps we could even do some outreach back to those campuses and remind them of the tools that are available for them to communicate with their students and why that count is so important that they get it that it’s accurate, and not just based on this snapshot in time.

Lorena Molina

Absolutely, absolutely. I would encourage anyone who’s working with, you know, at a local level, with their colleges, universities, and even nonprofit partners to actually relay this message. There is a lot of information on 2020census.gov that specifically talks about the modifications to the virus operations and the new timelines and appropriate messaging to actually convey these changes and where students should be counted.

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, and I want to thank you for the great tool kits that you’ve made available to local government through ELGL on all of your different sites and through your staff. You’ve put together things that are just turnkey in terms of how people can use the messaging and the graphics to spread information about the census. Talk more about how you have relied on crowd sourced content creation to get the message out in ways that you know, that you don’t necessarily control or that you can’t do. Share with us more about that approach.

Lorena Molina

Absolutely. So we run as part of one of our accelerators, a program called Creatives for the Count and it’s really a national call to action for content creators, and I’m not talking about you know, just designers and filmmakers and content strategists but anybody that is online and uses social media could consider themselves as a content creator. When you share messaging online, and and we have done a lot of research around how contents spreads and what effective social media shareable graphics and assets are impactful, you know, for people to take action on, on any given you know call to action in this case it will be respond to the 20 census, of course. So, what we have done is we have generated a process and an initiative by which any content creator, any nonprofit organization, you know, any city, state or local government can actually crowd source the power of their own constituents and their own community to develop content in a very fast and iterative way. So Creatives for the Count, if you want to check it out, you can go to census.accelerate.gov, which is our website. Our initiative is called Census Accelerate, and we developed and I’m going to talk kind of pre COVID world and post COVID world because we’re in the process of adapting this to an all virtual environment. But in the last year and a half, we have piloted these really cool, engaging, design thinking workshops that have focused more on content creation. And we essentially design these proms of specific hard to count communities and what is a messaging that resonates based on a lot of research. And I want to point to a specific study that was made by the Census Bureau a few years ago that actually informed our national campaign, and it’s called CBAMs is a Census Barriers, Motivators and Attitudes study, which was both qualitative and quantitative, which essentially is the basis of the research for the messaging for the media campaign for the 2020 census at a national scale. And a lot of partners have find that have found this extremely useful in their own campaigns at a local level. So just want to point, you know, listeners to that, to that research, and we can definitely share it afterwards. And that really helped us understand where are some of those messaging gaps that may be at a national level might not resonate, but where local communities and local elected officials working with their partners can help crowd source this. So we have essentially, gartnered masses of creatives and students and just folks that are very heavily on, you know, engage in, in their civic duty to get out the word about the 2020 census. And through this process, we have helped catalyze hundreds and hundred pieces of content that are shareable, that are fun or witty, convey a really concise message about the importance of the census. But speaking the language of the internet, right speaking the language of social media, Facebook and Twitter, and all the other great platforms. So what we think is that incorporating the communities to develop this content themselves, whether it means, whether it’s other shared graphic posters we did one of these events that we call them, CreateAthons We have done these all across the nation. But one particular that resonates, we did in El Paso, Texas with border communities. And we had artists, we had storytellers, we had influencers, we had graffiti artists, kind of sketch out what a really beautiful mural in the city could look like to convey the importance of census. So it runs the gamut from digital to analog, but it’s really tapping into the talent of creatives, to have content that not only resonates but that really speaks the language of their local community, sometimes in language. So we have seen a lot of content that has been created in language as well. And we partner with Brock the Bow actually on a what we call a content repository, which is a gallery of all this content that has been created through our CreateAthon efforts. And we have over 500 pieces of content that are actually all developed by the communities for the community. And that website, it’s, it’s creativesforthecount.org if you guys want to check it out.

Kirsten Wyatt

So talk to us about the April 1 date. We’re recording this episode on April 2, and we’ll listen to it in early April. Does the April 1st date mean that the census is  , stop sharing content? Just give us a reminder of what that means in the whole timeline of census.

Lorena Molina

Yeah, that’s a really great question. And we get this all the time. So April 1st is a reference date, right? It’s census day. It has been census day for a long time. I know it’s, a lot of people say, well, why would you do the census on April 1, it’s April Fool’s Day, people are not going to take it seriously. Which does present a challenge but census day has always been April 1, and it’s just a reference day and the question that is asked on the census form is actually the reference date for on how many people live in your household right and how they’re counted is on that reference date. However, it’s the time period for the census spans a couple of months, right? So we start we started the census. It was online live on March 12. And it will continue to be available. We call this a self response period. So self response is really by online, phone or mail form, where the household respond on their own without having a census taker come in and knock on their door, of course. So that timeline originally was planned on starting in March 12, and it spanned through the end of July, so July 31ST. And due to the current environment, it has been extended further through mid August for the moment and the current status of operations is actually available and updated on the census website at 2020census.gov. And it also provides the status of all the different operations like I explained in the past, it’s not a one size fits all type of enumeration. There’s some places where received the form earlier than others, you know, with their invitation to respond. And some places actually, what we call update, leave and update are no more either different types of ways of counting people. However, the majority of the nation, you know, was available, had the availability of the online response option since March 12. But through the summer, now, we’re looking at a mid-August deadline, which right now is August 14. And on our website on 2020census.gov, there is a schedule the revised schedule of the response to our current environment, of course, and how it has impacted the timeline for each of the operations and there are many of them, so I’m not going to go through them all now. But what we really want communities to understand and I think this is where local governments and elected officials can make such a difference is communicating the fact that April 1 is really not a deadline, it’s a reference date for the census. So they can continue to get the messaging out, that it’s not too late, that they can still respond, it’s going to be open through August. So ideally, what we want is to receive as many solid responses as possible so that people volunteer to respond online, by phone or returning their mailed form.

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, I think it’s such an important point for you to make, because I know that right when many local governments were gearing up their outreach on the census, it was also right when COVID hit and started affecting their communities and all of the news cycles were just dominated by this. And so, you know, it’s just a reminder to our listeners, you know, there’s this whole repository of tools that are out there, there’s a content library, and we’ll provide links on the web page for this episode. But just making sure that you know, once we adapt to kind of a new normal, whatever that might look like, that that the communications and the in the information sharing around census should continue, especially now that the that the window has been extended. One piece of information that we recently shared was related to a video competition that is now open, can you share more information about that and how local governments themselves and then also their community members could participate?

Lorena Molina

Absolutely. So this is really exciting. We have leveraged America COMPETES Act, which gives the Census Bureau the authority to run a price challenge. This is our second one. And we really want to focus the attention on what are some of the gaps and needs that we’re seeing online. And one of the, we know that one of the most compelling types of content is video, right? It’s shareable. It’s spreadable. People do engage with video content on social media platforms. So we launched this challenge. It is called the Get Out The Count Video Prize challenge where we’re awarding a total of 50 thousand dollars of prize awards. So we have three categories, the grand prize wins $30,000, we have a runner up, and an award of $10,000. And we also have a student prize for any student that wishes to submit, they can submit under the student category, and that’s also $10,000 Prize. So a total of $50,000 for, you know, encouraging our content creators and just communities out there to share video content of how they’re getting out the count, what is resonating and to really capture the essence of conveying that important message about responding to the census, why it is important, but also increasing the education, kind of education and awareness about the census across communities. So currently, our our prizes open through April 17. And I encourage you all to go to our website. Again, that’s accelerate.census.gov. To read more about the prize challenge, and the idea here is to encourage video content to specifically we have a few requirements, of course, more information on our website. But we want to kind of encourage people to develop content that reaches some of the hard to count communities and hard to count communities vary widely. But, you know, students, kids under five, families with young kids on split particularly or households that you know, are hard to count because either they don’t count kids or babies. There’s also a lot of conversation out there about babies and if they should be counted and when. So essentially, any baby born on April 1 or before should be counted on their census form. Other race and ethnic minorities, you know, recent immigrants, young and mobile populations. There are many reasons why hard to count communities are considered hard to count. But we want to make sure that there is content that resonates for any and all hard to count community. So that’s one of the requirements of the video price challenge as well is to develop content that touches on one or more of those audiences.

Kirsten Wyatt

And thinking about all of the content that that you’ve created, or that will be created, any advice or perspective for our listeners, who might be worried that messaging about census, especially when you know, community members are so concerned about the economy and obviously the pandemic and kind of all of these really heavy issues that are out there. Any advice you might have on how to balance census messaging with all of that, anything that you’ve seen other local government’s doing that that’s really effective?

Lorena Molina

Absolutely, I think and one of the major points that we convey is the fact that the census data informs how federal funds are distributed across the nation. And a lot of that is for health care, hospitals, you know, health care workers to make sure that communities have the funding that they need for these services. So whether it’s healthcare or its roads and schools, education, you know, basic infrastructure that might not be as known and the way that the funds are distributed is based on the population. So every 10 years when we do the census, it provides a new baseline of metrics and data for government to distribute over $675 billion of federal funding to states and communities across the nation that do impact how healthcare is funded at a local level. So thinking about that, I think there’s a very direct correlation of messaging that we could, you know, consider amplifying, specifically on that funding piece, right. Because we we always say the census is about money and power, power is a representation in Congress and at a local level in, in the political infrastructure. So that’s why is the basis of the democratic process, right. But it’s also that, that that money piece, you know, funding of, you know, almost $675 billion is distributed. It’s a lot that, that these numbers really impact and inform in terms of that decision making. So I think now more than ever, it’s, it’s kind of an opportunity to to correlate how the funding for this basic, you know, community services are distributed, healthcare being one of them. And in the current, you know, environment that we’re in, I think that’s really important to kind of connect the two, that being counted in the you know, for for the future deployment of the funds, it’s important to understand how these two things correlate. And again, not only for for health care, but also for education, for transportation and for many other components of our day to day lives that we sometimes take for granted.

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, and what a great point to wrap up our conversation on and precisely why we wanted to have you come back to GovLove and talk to our listeners about why, you know, even now in the midst of this crisis that we need to be sharing and promoting and getting great information out there about about the census. But I want to ask you our traditional last question. If you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

Lorena Molina

Oh my god, I love that question. Let’s think I think in a current environment, I will go with Imagine by John Lennon.

Kirsten Wyatt

Okay, good choice. Good choice. Well, I want to thank you for coming back to GovLove for being a great source of information for all of our listeners and reminding us why the census is so important.

Lorena Molina

Thank you for having me.

Kirsten Wyatt

GovLove is produced by a rotating cast of awesome ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network and our vision is to amplify the good in local government. And we do this by engaging the brightest minds in local government. A reminder that our full suite of COVID information and resources is online at elgl.org/COVID-19. For our listeners, you can reach us at elgl.org/Govlove or on twitter @Govlovepodcast. If you have a story idea for GovLove, we want to hear it. You can send us a message on Twitter or email [email protected] Thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

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