One of the surest ways to lose your job in the federal government is to do your job, even if it makes waves.
Ask David Shaw, a 38-year-old statistician for the Bureau of the Census. A few years ago he became interested in how the Census Bureau could collect more information for local neighborhood and community needs.
There was little doubt that the bureau was relatively responsive to the information needs of business, other government agencies, and universities. But what about its response to ordinary citizens?
Shaw believed that census publications were not very usable by ordinary citizen groups trying to improve their neighborhood. Even the census “small area” publications (called the tract and block reports), he maintained, were geared to the metropolitan rather than the neighborhood area and were incomplete and too expensive.
So he started to commit the grievous error of agitating for change within the Census Bureau. His activism in the local government employees union also did not endear him to his superiors at the Department of Commerce.
It turns out, to nobody’s special surprise, that politics and pressure groups have not even neglected the Census Bureau in official Washington.
Regional planners and municipal consolidationists want the Census Bureau to collect data in a certain kind of way. Corporations and trade associations want data to help them in marketing and labor policies. Universities urge the bureau to collect information related to certain research and educational projects.
All these groups are well represented on the Census Bureau’s advisory committees. Citizen organizations are not.
Shaw argued within the bureau for a new effort to reach out to citizens with census data that is relevant to their understanding of where they live and their desire to solve local problems.
For example, he noted how unaware citizens were of the volume of tax dollars flowing from their neighborhoods to federal, state and local governments. A lower income community of about 20,000 population would contribute between $10 million and $15 million a year. That fact can sharpen community expectations for what they should receive in return.
Citizens interested in initiating daycare centers, adult education programs, playgrounds, housing improvements and voter registration could depend right now on census information to do a better job in launching these action projects if the bureau were more vigorous in publicizing the availability of these data in small, inexpensive information pamphlets.
But Shaw found that most census employees themselves neither had seen nor used small area census data for the neighborhoods where they resided.
Shaw recommended that the Census Bureau develop model neighborhood information systems, in cooperation with local government institutions, that could help people decide what is best for their community programs.
These systems would not just include population, housing, age, education and income information of a locality but also would include, for instance, directories of services, civic groups, regularly scheduled events, and specialized maps. Shaw developed such a model for a Washington, D. C. neighborhood.
Since the Washington, D. C., government is establishing advisory councils next month, pursuant to recent voter approval of the idea, neighborhood information systems are receiving greater interest.
Already, the D.C. Public Library, together with the Institute for Neighborhood Studies and David Shaw, have prepared a 46-page proposal to “advance citizen responsibility” through effective organization or neighborhood information.
The Census Bureau recently issued one publication entitled, “Census Data for Community Action” (available from the Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C., for 50 cents) that outlines part of what the census should be pursuing.
“A gesture,” Shaw calls it. There is little indication that Bureau director Vincent P. Barabba or the Congress is very determined to do much more.
What did Shaw receive for his efforts? He was transferred last May from his assignment on neighborhood systems to a project relating to the statistical abstract. Another civil servant learns the sad lesson that, without citizen awareness and involvement in governmental doings, the good finish last.