Household survey responses rates in the United States have been steadily declining for at least the last two decades. A similar decline in survey response can be observed in all wealthy countries, and is particularly high in areas with large numbers of single-parent households, families with young children, workers with long commutes, and high crime rates. Efforts to raise response rates have used monetary incentives or repetitive attempts to obtain completed interviews, but these strategies increase the costs of surveys and are often unsuccessful. Why is response declining and how does it increase the possibility of inaccurate survey results? Most important, with the advancement of reliable social science research at stake, what are effective methods for increasing the response rate for household surveys?
With support from the Russell Sage Foundation, the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) will organize a panel to develop an agenda identifying research that can answer important, unresolved questions about the causes and consequences of declining survey response and determine the most cost-effective ways to improve response rates and the quality of survey data. CNSTAT began to assemble the panel, culled from experts in various social science fields, in July 2010, and the panel will continue its work through 2011. Chaired by survey research expert Roger Tourangeau of the University of Maryland, the panel will work to determine the project’s direction, but several issues will be key to developing a research agenda: to assemble response-rate data on a variety of national surveys representing different survey designs and modes of data collection; to compare survey types that exhibit greater or lesser resilience to changes in the social climate for surveys; to identify research that illuminates social conditions that appear to reduce survey participation; and to study survey techniques designed to counteract those environmental barriers. The panel is also likely to devote considerable attention to understudied aspects of non-response bias (distortions in poorly responded surveys), investigating what is known about how this bias affects survey results.
The study panel will meet on three or four occasions over its lifetime. It will commission papers on issues selected by the panel and hold a workshop to review those papers. Toward the end of its run, the panel will deliberate and prepare a report with findings and recommendations for a structured agenda specifying priority research projects for the short, medium, and longer terms. The report will be independently reviewed by members of the National Academy and published by the National Academy Press. Dissemination activities, including sponsor briefings, presentations at conferences and seminars, and meetings with public and private-sector stakeholders will occur at the end of the panel’s term. RSF maintains an ongoing commitment to improving social science methodology and has made this award to CNSTAT with the intention that it be a pilot project for future research into the decline in survey response rates and enhanced methods for social science data collection.