It began, like many intriguing stories do, with an anonymous tip.

A Census Bureau employee had read reporter Will Carless’ March 2020 exposé about the agency’s last-minute switch to an untested digital platform. Now, several months later, she was running into another set of problems she thought reporters ought to know about. 

“It’s a broken system from the bottom up and the top down!” she wrote, referring to a new enumeration app the bureau had unveiled as part of a major tech upgrade. Rather than streamline the counting process for workers, the app sent them on circuitous routes, repeatedly hassling residents who insisted they’d already completed their survey.

“Find someone and drive around with them for a day,” she added. “It will explain a lot.”

As the 2020 count’s in-person operation kicked into gear after months of pandemic-related delays, Carless and community engagement producer David Rodriguez heeded her advice. They soon exposed a maddening pattern of technological glitches, equipment shortages and error messages. It all added up to “an atmosphere of desperation and despondency” among enumerators, they wrote. 

“We’ve all started calling it ‘The Senseless,’ ” one source explained. “What I have been telling people who I’m training is, ‘You really have to have zero expectations if you want to work here.’ ”

The story struck a nerve with other census workers, ushering in waves of new complaints from across the country. To help capture them, Reveal’s engagement and collaborations team built a web form and shared it across our social media channels, on our podcast and among sources we’d already developed. Many enumerators and supervisors who filled it out described familiar problems with their government-issued technology. But others shared more troubling patterns: poor training, repetitive work and pressure to close cases early.  

As nearly 100 responses poured in, we tagged them thematically. “COVID threat,” for example, referred to accounts from workers who said they didn’t receive adequate pandemic protections on the job. “Stopping the count” described pressure workers said they faced to close cases without following proper protocols. Gradually, a story began sliding into focus: On top of the tech problems Rodriguez and Carless had already documented, dozens of workers expressed fury and confusion over being sent back to the same addresses, again and again, with no explanation from superiors (“duplicate work” – 44 responses). They also complained about termination policies (“terminations” – 21 responses) that felt perplexing, disorganized and cruel.

Reveal reporters used the online form builder Screendoor to collect and categorize dozens of census workers’ stories. (Byard Duncan / Reveal)

Using these complaints as a reporting roadmap, we published a follow-up investigation in November that expanded on workers’ concerns. They told us that poor communication and training, pressure to end operations early, clunky technology and haphazard management practices combined to throw their jobs into chaos. In one particularly stark incident, a Los Angeles-area field supervisor described competition among his colleagues to terminate as many enumerators as possible, as quickly as possible. The managers charged with carrying out the task were referred to on official paperwork as “Bounty Hunters.” 

The bureau, in response to a photo we produced of this paperwork, maintained that “Bounty Hunter” “is not an official term of the 2020 Census or the Census Bureau.”

The reporting didn’t stop there. Shortly after publication, we shared the story with all the respondents whose accounts had helped inform its direction. We urged them to share their feedback and pass the piece along to current and former colleagues at the Census Bureau. As the bureau responded – slowly – to our repeated inquiries, we also took on the role of de facto educators, providing workers with much-needed context about their own experiences. We added and subtracted questions from our web form as new potential story angles came into focus and conducted a Reddit AMA – a live question-and-answer session – in an online community populated by census workers.

This approach built rapport – and, more importantly, trust: In the weeks that followed, nearly 50 more responses poured in. From these, we produced a follow-up investigation that sought to connect the dots between chaotic working conditions and bigger-picture signs of dysfunction at the bureau. 

In that story, published in early January, workers told us that the bureau closed cases abruptly and without clear explanation, swapping in data from existing government records for the gold standards of self-response or in-person enumeration. They also said operational standards fell by the wayside as the count’s completion deadline jerked back and forth to deliver the apportionment numbers on then-President Donald Trump’s desired timeline.

Amid repeated delays and “anomalies” in the bureau’s data release date, these workers’ accounts offered a glimpse behind the curtain of a multibillion-dollar decennial operation whose potential problems experts had warned about for years.

In some ways, this approach was similar to traditional reporting. We identified sources, conducted dozens of conversations, took notes, looked for patterns. Yet by using our community of workers as an editorial rudder, we were able to ensure that the stories’ content would inform both the public and the people who’d volunteered their time and trust. It created a virtuous cycle: Our articles yielded interactions with a growing pool of sources, which in turn yielded more stories, which in turn yielded more conversations. 

This dialogue continues today as part of our ongoing Seeing 2020 project, which aims to promote in-depth reporting on the census at the local and national level.

A crowdsourced reporting approach like this has potential beyond just government employees, too. In 2018, ProPublica reporters Ariana Tobin and Peter Gosselin used similar tactics to investigate allegations of age discrimination at the tech giant IBM. After releasing a broadly framed reader callout, they narrowed their focus to tech workers, then again to former IBM employees. Before long, “we realized that we had been pointed toward an angry, sad and motivated group,” they wrote.

Sounds familiar.

Yet despite all the problems they encountered while trying to do their jobs, many census workers we interviewed were doggedly committed to the count’s ultimate purpose: ensuring a fair and functioning democracy. Beyond the challenges presented by repetitive work and haphazard trainings, many insisted that we describe the sense of civic passion propelling those who trudged through scorching heat or braved smoke-choked skies or risked contracting COVID-19 to get an accurate count of the U.S. population. 

So, at their behest, we made sure to do that, too.

Byard Duncan can be reached at bduncan@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ByardDuncan.

Byard Duncan is a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He manages Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helps lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.