WASHINGTON — For the first time, the Census Bureau is giving US households a chance to respond to government surveys over the Internet, part of a bid to save costs and boost sagging response rates in a digital age.
The new online option will supplement the traditional census mail-out operation. It is a major shift for the agency, which has relied almost exclusively on paper forms since 1970 but is now moving toward a more Internet-based system after spending a record $13 billion on the 2010 census.
‘‘The online response option is part of an ongoing digital transformation at the Census Bureau,’’ said Thomas Mesenbourg, the bureau’s acting director. ‘‘The Census Bureau is transforming to make responding to surveys more convenient, conducting surveys more cost-effective, and America’s statistics more accessible on digital and mobile devices.’’
Beginning this week, more than 3.5 million US households that are randomly selected each year to participate in the American Community Survey will be sent letters asking them to respond online. The questionnaire asks households for wide-ranging details from education and income to disabilities, language use, and commute times.
The bureau also will add a new series of questions on computer and Internet usage to the survey, with data becoming available beginning in 2014.
If households do not respond within two weeks, the Census Bureau will send out copies of paper surveys and follow up with interviews by phone or in person.
The bureau said it is hoping to tap into the changing information habits of Americans, especially younger adults, who are increasingly turning to computers, tablets, and smartphones for their communications. Over the last two censuses, the government has struggled with decreasing response rates, due to a combination of perceived inconvenience and concerns about revealing personal information in surveys.
Perhaps equally important, the bureau believes higher response rates could eventually reduce costs, mainly by decreasing the need to mail out voluminous forms or dispatch hundreds of thousands of survey-takers each month to individual homes. At least initially, officials estimate the switch could shave $3 million off the price of conducting the survey, which cost taxpayers roughly $250 million in 2012.
The survey is used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds for hospitals, roads, and schools.
The ACS surveys being distributed this week mark the first time the government will offer an Internet option on such a wide scale to US households, according to Frank Vitrano, the Census bureau’s associate director for the 2020 census. He said it offers the option in smaller surveys for more niche audiences, such as businesses. An Internet option also previously was provided on a limited basis in 2000, but only a small fraction of households participated. By 2010, census officials had backed away from an Internet-based survey, citing concerns of hacking and other security breaches.