Census Bureau Director Retirement Could Lead to More Challenges

Planning for Census 2020 must stay on track

The recent announcement of Census Bureau Director John Thompson’s retirement comes at a particularly inopportune time. The reality is that the next three years leading up to Census 2020 are pivotal. Over this decade, the Census Bureau has been engaging in research and planning on innovations to how they collect data, such as an internet response option, utilizing administrative records, redesigning race and ethnicity questions, and using in-office address canvassing. Now is when final decisions must be made on these innovations, but challenges, including funding difficulties, could negatively impact the Bureau’s ability to make proper decisions that benefit, or at least do not harm, our communities. Director Thompson’s retirement is a setback in these efforts as he has been overseeing much of this work; with his retirement, we lose significant institutional knowledge about the innovations and the vision for the 2020 Census.

Furthermore, with the Director’s retirement, the Census Bureau will not currently have a leader advocating on its behalf for significant and sufficient funding for its activities. The Census Bureau is already facing a steep, uphill battle toward achieving a fair and accurate census due to the shortchanging they are receiving from Congress with respect to their budget. Last week, Congress announced its budget deal that funds the Census Bureau at a level significantly below the president’s request for Fiscal Year 2017 (1.47 billion v. $1.6 billion request). Previously, the Trump administration submitted its initial, pared-down budget to Congress that included few details for Fiscal Year 2018. Many touted the proposed funding level for the Census Bureau of $1.5 billion as a win; however, this level is actually woefully inadequate for what the agency needs in FY 2018. In fact, the funding level proposed for Fiscal Year 2018 is $135 million below the Census Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2017 request. In contrast, looking to the previous decennial census, the Bush administration requested a 25 percent funding increase between the comparable FY 2007 and FY 2008 for the Census 2010 ramp-up. The Census Bureau should be ramping up its activities as it moves into 2018 with its planned End-to-End Readiness Test in three areas of the country, representing the only opportunity to evaluate the proposed innovations in true census-like environments (urban, suburban and rural areas).

Chart from the Census Project depicting how the annual funding levels leading up to Census 2020 compares with trends in the previous decade

At the same time, these decisions must be made in the current volatile political climate, which tends to seem hostile to many progressive issues and for our most vulnerable members. While it is always a challenge to ensure our community members feel safe participating in the census, engaging our communities is more critical and more difficult in the face of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies in the country today. After the election, many immigrants are fearful of engaging with the government and the public. The Census Bureau’s integrated partnership and communications efforts will be critical to help reassure people to participate, and must be complemented by outside groups with a similar message. Without a leader, outside partners may be wary of lending their support until there is a leader in place at the Census Bureau that is committed to a fair and accurate census and is willing to commit resources to make that happen. With the uncertainty around funding, the Census Bureau has already had to cut back its efforts around communications and partnership. Only time will tell if an adequate investment will occur.

This is why the president must promptly nominate a qualified individual to fill Director Thompson’s shoes. The nominee must meet the relevant qualifications under the Presidential Appointments Efficiency Act of 2011 and be an individual who has a “demonstrated ability in managing large organizations and experience in the collection, analysis, and use of statistical data.” Time is of the essence — the President must make this a priority and keep Census 2020 planning on track.