Census: No Time for On-the-Job Training

By John C. Yang

Do you have the qualifications for this job? How many times have we each had to answer that question in our career as we sought a new position?

If reported rumors are true, the next potential Census deputy director could be someone who is uniquely unqualified for the position. Advancing Justice | AAJC is deeply concerned, as this person would negatively impact the upcoming 2020 Census. According to media reports, the Trump administration could potentially name Thomas Brunell, a Texas political science professor with no prior background in statistical agency expertise or management experience. It is disturbing to learn that the administration is considering someone for a deputy position who did not make it through the vetting process for consideration as the Census Director.

As a former political appointee in the U.S. Department of Commerce, I understand the demands of a senior management position in a high-profile federal government department. I also know first-hand why it is necessary to have a civil servant with extensive knowledge and experience to support the department director. The partnership between senior career staff and political appointees is critical. Without senior leadership that includes career civil servants, a department can make decisions in a vacuum and make unforced errors that career experts would know how to avoid.

The U.S. Census Bureau is going to need stellar leadership to combat the challenges facing the 2020 Census, which has been impeded by ongoing inadequate funding, a current vacancy in the director’s position, and a rapidly approaching Census Day (April 1, 2020). To maintain integrity, objectivity, and an effective decennial census, the deputy director candidate must have economic and statistical skills, understand the inner workings of interacting with Congress, and understand how the Census Bureau’s current functions and products can aid in securing an accurate count in 2020. With only two years left to plan for and implement a fair and accurate count, now is not the time for on-the-job training. The Census is a mandated part of the Constitution but it is much more than a requirement for our communities.

The Census is vital for a functioning society, and for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other underserved populations, the Census makes sure that our communities are not undercounted, rendered invisible, or unable to access necessary resources. In order for the Census to properly operate, leadership must have the appropriate experience and understanding to ensure an accurate count. Unfortunately, Brunell appears to be the opposite of what the country needs. During Brunell’s career, he has testified in favor of redrawing congressional districts and authored a book opposing competitive elections. He is clearly not someone committed to impartiality and objectivity — an essential function of the job he wants to hold. At a minimum, many will see him as being partisan in this role — and this perception is enough to chill participation in already hard-to-count communities who are weary of participating with the government in today’s hostile climate.

In any job, the role of the employer is to make sure the best, most qualified candidate is hired. Brunell is not the right person. The 2020 Census can’t afford for the administration to nominate an individual who is unqualified and politically partisan. We need senior leadership at the U.S. Census Bureau who are committed to securing properly funded, objective, and accurate count of the U.S. population.

John C. Yang is the President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.