Census Bureau, in home stretch for 2020 count, lacks permanent leadership

With two more years left to go, it may not sound like it, but the Census Bureau finds itself in the home stretch of preparations for the 2020 count. But for more than half a year, the agency has lacked a permanent leadership.

The last Census Bureau director, John Thompson, stepped down in June after serving in the role for more than four years. The deputy director position, meanwhile, has been vacant for nearly a year.

At this critical moment for the 2020 count, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) have called on President Donald Trump to fast-track the nomination process for new agency executives.

“With the 2020 Decennial Census looming, it is imperative that the Census Bureau has the leadership it needs to ensure an accurate and cost-effective enumeration in 2020,” the senators wrote in December.

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Once nominated and confirmed by the Senate, the new director will be tasked with lobbying for more funding for the 2020 census count, a request lawmakers have already met with skepticism.

“The Census Bureau is now in the process of a substantial ramp-up, as it prepares for the 2020 decennial census, both in terms of operations and also in terms of revenue,” Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, told Federal News Radio. “They need billions of dollars over the next couple years to complete the task of preparations.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who once worked as a census enumerator as a college student, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last October that the 2020 census count would cost the Census Bureau approximately $15.6 billion, from beginning to end, and would be the most expensive census count to date. The 2010 census, by comparison, cost the agency nearly $13 billion.

At this point in the planning cycle, the agency traditionally conducts a full-scale field test of the new techniques it plans to implement in the upcoming count. The Census Bureau had planned to run a test of its new technology on 700,000 households in 2018, in rural West Virginia, suburban Washington state and urban sections of Rhode Island. But due to funding shortfalls, the agency had to cancel two of those field tests, and will focus solely on its test case in Rhode Island this April.

“This is a very serious problem, because if you don’t pre-test your techniques, and be confident about it, you don’t get any do-overs when the census is done,” Sparks said. “The fact that we’re going into the next decennial census without a full-scale field test due to shortfalls in cash, is very troubling.”

The upcoming census begins April 1, 2020, and faces hard deadlines for conducting the count and handing the data over for redistricting and funding purposes.

Spark said that for years, Congress has “consistently underfunded” the Census Bureau with a budget he projects is $200 million short of what the agency needs to develop its new IT innovations and encourage more households to fill out census forms online.

“At this point, the Census Bureau is committed to trying to move forward with an IT-centric census, which would be taken [on] the internet,” he said. “But if there are any more delays, any more shortfalls in terms of funding, then they’re going to have to revert to the tried-and-true — and tested — paper-and-pencil census, which will be less accurate and will cost the American taxpayer billions of additional dollars.”

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau remains funded at fiscal 2017 levels until Congress passes an omnibus spending bill, and has postponed those budget negotiations through several continuing resolutions. The latest stopgap spending bill runs out on Jan. 19.

A Commerce Department spokesman told Federal News Radio in a Jan. 9 statement that Secretary Ross and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Karen Dunn, serving some of the duties of the deputy secretary, have put a new oversight structure in place at Census, reorganized its management, and produced a new lifecycle cost estimate for the 2020 count.

The secretary’s management changes at Census include putting two senior career officials, Ron Jarmin and Enrique Lamas, in charge of the agency’s day-to-day operations.

“They have decades of experience at Census and are dedicated public servants. The expertise of the permanent staff at Census is fully at work, and we have supplemented the in-house staff with outside consultants who formerly held leadership positions at Census and in the tech industry,” the Census spokesman said. “No prior Census has received as much direct managerial attention by the Secretary of Commerce and senior Commerce staff.”

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