Even as the nation still digests the findings of the 2020 count of the US population, the Census Bureau is looking towards 2030 and modernizing the other products it produces more frequently. It recently released its strategic plan for now to 2026. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos joins The Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss some of the highlights.
Tom Temin Let’s talk about what are some of the lessons learned from 2020 that are maybe informing the strategic plan that just came out recently.
Robert Santos Certainly, I guess I can start with the obvious that the decennial census in 2020 was one of the most unusual in our history of census taking. We faced unprecedented challenges. There was the COVID pandemic. There were natural disasters, hurricanes, wildfires, civil unrest, unfortunately, and we had a condensed schedule that flip flopped for a while. And regardless, we ended up completing the job we set out to do, so we’re really proud of that. The lessons learned included things like the realization that our new strategies actually worked. For deployment of new technology, we digitized the field operation, and had real time data to make decisions on which houses to call on and which ones we should fall back on and wait till later. We used administrative records in a variety of ways that ended up including use ultimately in some enumerations, as well. And that proved to be highly successful. And we also focused on the hard to count communities, because they were especially challenging. COVID affected some of the most underserved populations. It affected them the worst and we needed to take that into account and be respectful. Yet, we still were able to do with the help of partners, and communities, we were able to count as many as we did, when most folks thought that that would be a challenge that couldn’t be overcome. We were really proud of that job and we were able to realize something, a lesson learned that actually will impact incredibly our planning for 2030. That is the notion that we could adapt. We could adapt in the face of challenges that were totally unanticipated, that were coming left and right. We changed operations with data collection because of the unknown impact of COVID, because we didn’t have knowledge about what that beast was, and then started up again once we had an action plan. We were able to secure PPE, personal protection equipment, and masks and things of that sort in amazingly quick fashion, deploy those and then continue with door knocking operations. It was incredible the amount of adaptation we were able to do very nimbly. And that served us well because it taught us that we can adapt, but you really need to have that solid base operational plan in place, knowing exactly what you’re going to do in an ideal world. And if you use that as a base, then you can adapt from there. There were some really interesting and useful lessons that we had from that experience.
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Tom Temin So it sounds like you proved, not only some new strategies such as digitization and so forth, but also some new techniques for enumeration, such as use of administrative records.
Robert Santos That’s correct. We had planned to use the administrative records in a really efficient way, where if we had high quality administrative records, then if a household failed to respond, we could first identify that that address was occupied, it was the housing unit, and then secondly, we could send one of our field staff to knock on the door to try to secure the information. And if we had really high quality information from administrative records, we were able to then simply enumerate it and move on to the more challenging cases. And that allowed us to harvest resources that otherwise would have been dealt with capturing information that we could already get from the administrative record. So it allowed us to hone in on the places that we needed resources the most.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Census Bureau Director Robert Santos. Some of the adaptation that you described in detail, I’m guessing depended a great deal on the resiliency of the career workforce.
Robert Santos Absolutely. That was a challenge. The career force was, it was an exhausting time. People were working, you know, they weren’t working 40 hours a week, they were sometimes working much, much, much more than that, and nights, weekends, etc. But everybody was committed to mission and that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of coming into the Census Bureau as its director— is realizing the commitment that the career staff had, not only in terms of completing the field operations for the data collection, and decennial, but in our everyday surveys as well. We do over 130 surveys. We’re currently doing an economic census. We’re in the process of completing our government census. So there’s tons of operations that are already going on and the staff, despite all of the effort and the energy that it took to complete 2020 field operations, is still finishing up the data products for 2020, is still helping conduct the over 130 surveys that are ongoing, and so forth. So there’s still a lot of activity, there’s a lot of energy and it’s all due to this amazing career staff that we have.
Tom Temin And let’s talk about the strategic plan because it’s dated through 2026. And that’s short of 2030. So what does it do in the shorter term? And how does it relate to 2030? Let’s talk about the short term, it uses words like transformation, a couple of times statistical modernization. Tell us about those gambits.
Robert Santos Absolutely, well, the short term is really about learning. And it’s about taking the thinking time that you need to realize what we just went through with the decennial census, to harvest all of that digitized and field operations data, the quality indicators, as well as the experiences from data processing and publishing all of the data. Understand and analyze that information in order to help inform the next 2030 decennial census, as well as inform what we do with our current operations in things like the American community, surveying the current population study and things of that sort. So we’re in the process right now of doing the self-assessment, doing our evaluations doing our quality assessments. For example, the post-enumeration study results had been released over the last few months that include things like identifying undercounts of people of color and communities of color, of looking at state level data and looking at estimates of over an undercount, along with measures of uncertainty with that. And so we’re doing those types of assessments that’s necessary in the short run. We’re beginning the process and having been engaging in the process of the modernization and transformation. Now, that is both a short term and a long term operation. In the short term, we need to do the critical thinking and leverage what we are learning from our short term quality analyses and assessments to then begin the process of saying, “what is it that we need to do right now, to think differently about how we collect data at the Census Bureau?” “What does it mean to have a 21st century operation, both in terms of technology in terms of processes, and also in terms of methods?” We currently have and are based off of a relatively siloed type of operation. We have a huge decennial operation for our 10 year censuses. We’re already working on 2030. We also have silos for our economic censuses, for our individual survey, programs, like the American Community Survey — I’ve already talked about the current population study — but we have many, many other surveys across all different departments in the federal government that we serve. And so we want to take all those data plus the administrative records we’re getting and combined that into a single data gestation. So we will create in terms of modernizing a single pool within which all data reside and can be linked together so that they can be leveraged to address user needs, address Congress’s needs, address researchers, address local communities in their community based organizations and do community assessments to help cities, to help states, to help examine things like infrastructure, or the impact of climate on different types of communities, to identify inequities, be it in civil justice, or in jobs in economic development or whatever. And by thinking about, and moving towards, a modernization that’s built off of a common data pool, we can then more effectively and more creatively create statistical data products that address things that the current siloed methods simply can’t because the siloed data sets don’t talk to each other. And so we’re moving towards this one pool of data that’s linked together that can be more powerful and serve the people better and help support our democracy because we’ll know better who we are as a nation, what our needs are and where we’re going in the future.
Tom Temin I think what you’re saying points to something that’s obvious, but also often overlooked. And that is there is a correlation and something that needs to be studied between the methodologies for gathering and storing data, and the statistical rigor, the statistical science that has to accompany it.
Robert Santos That’s true. And in fact, there are many aspects of data quality, one of which is accuracy, you want to make sure your measures are right. But there’s also relevancy. And there’s also timeliness. So part of our modernization is built off of our experience with COVID. So during COVID, we realize that our data products, we have many gold standard data operations, like the American Community Survey, which is an absolute national treasure. Now, you collect data for a year, and then it takes nine months before it starts getting published. Well, in a COVID environment, where things are happening really quickly, and you want to know what’s going on with our population in terms of you know, the economy, and people in homes and kids are the taking classes virtually versus going in person, those types of things — you need more contemporaneous data. So we created the household pulse survey, and then small business pulse surveys, in order to examine contemporaneously really quickly what’s going on on a month to month basis. And we use that data. And even though it’s “experimental,” it’s highly useful for getting a sense of what’s going on in our country. That identifies a data need, that didn’t exist, it was a gap that we filled. And we’re looking to address those issues of data relevancy, and data timeliness, as part of our rethinking of relevance, timeliness, accuracy in all aspects of data collection and data processing, so that we can better serve the American people.
Tom Temin My guest is Robert Santos, he’s director of the US Census Bureau. You might almost call it data ops, just as people have DevOps and other kinds of ops, turning it from a periodic event to a continuous production sounds like.
Robert Santos Yes, absolutely, and I like the way you frame that. It’s also interesting, because, as I mentioned earlier with the household pulse survey filling a need that’s not gold standard, it also brings to the forefront this whole issue of fit for purpose. That no statistical product, and no data collection, is ever perfect. What you need to understand then is, through the transparency of the Census Bureau, what are the strengths of the data and what are the limitations? And what purposes, are they appropriate for use? And so our decennial census, for example, is appropriate for use for redistricting, and for apportionment of congressional seats. So we need to think in those terms and because of that, they need to be gold standard, but the hustle pulse survey, which gives people an idea of what’s going on in local communities and with families during the COVID period, that doesn’t have to have the high standard of quality that a decennial census has. And so we need to advance those notions and create products that have different levels of quality and timeliness associated with them, so that they can serve the public better in terms of the different types of needs that currently exist, and are emerging as our society becomes more and more data hungry and as we make better uses of technology.
Tom Temin So a data set or data product could almost come with a consumer code saying this one is the gold standard, like the 2020 and 2030 count. This one has this degree of reliability, use it in the appropriate way.
Robert Santos That’s correct.
Tom Temin And what is the status of 2030, by the way?
Robert Santos We are in the midst of planning. We are, as I said, doing our due diligence as we need to in terms of documenting the lessons learned from 2020. We’re doing a number of evaluations and assessments of our methods, and the impact of those methods on data quality in the 2020 census so that we can apply them to our planning for the 2030. We have some projects already in the pipeline and are being conducted. But we’re still a bit away from this notion that we really want to reinvent what it means to do a decennial census in the 21st century. So we have a vision of really leveraging administrative data, so that we can reduce the burden for the easy to count populations, the folks that will respond anyway, but they happen to have really good high quality data associated with them that already exists. And then identifying the gaps, that tends to be the historically hard to count populations, where we can really hone in and focus by doing a couple of things. One is, yeah, we need to knock on doors. But really, even more importantly, is we need community engagement. We need to go back into the field, so to speak, and have a continuous partnership, not just wait, you know, a couple of years before the decennial census. We need to be there every day of every year, so to speak, have a continuous relationship with communities, with cities with states with stakeholders so that we can show how the data that we collect tangibly improves people’s lives: be it a neighborhood, be at a city, be at a state. We have data products that actually do improve people’s lives, in terms of economic development, or infrastructure, fire stations, or public health or evacuation routes for natural disasters. And we want to be able to assemble that data, and use our partners to help give those messages and demonstrate the tangible benefits so that we can instill a higher level of trust with the communities and engender more participation, so that when we get to 2030, we will have down with our administrative records and such the easy to come populations. And we can really focus in hone in on those gaps on the harder populations to enumerate.
Tom Temin Well, I think I’m in the easy category. I’ve been in my house for 30 years, so we won’t have any trouble counting us.
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Robert Santos I think that’s kinda easy.
Tom Temin Right. And just what’s in your 2023 budget requests that points to some of these efforts?
Robert Santos The 2023 requests, it took me a moment because we’re already working on the 2024. But the 2023 budget request, the president has actually released a budget, just over $1.5 billion, which is about $150 million over the previous year. It basically does a few things. The first is it continues the work that we need to still do on the 2020 census. We’re not done yet. There are still some really valuable large data products, that are going to be forthcoming, that will show the rich diversity of the American people. Those are called the detailed housing and demographic characteristics and a couple of other products like that. Those are forthcoming. We’re also, like I said, our assessments of the 2020 data, so that we can then help inform the 2030. As part of the transformation process, we’re looking to develop our career staff in a very special way, and that’s part of the leadership that I’m bringing to the Census Bureau, in tandem with the Census Bureau already embracing these principles, which are the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. Through my 40 year career, I have lived the fact that diverse voices and different perspectives create innovation, creativity, new looks at problems that folks couldn’t wrap their heads around. And suddenly, with a different perspective, you see a solution, and you understand. And so we’re looking to instill the values of diversity, equity and inclusion into our everyday work so that we can do the reality checks. You know, are the data that we’ve been collecting for 40 years and exactly the same way, are they really relevant now that society has changed now that people, for example, have embraced their culture in a way that didn’t happen maybe 30 years ago, because of things like genealogy reports, and DNA and analyses and such? And our technology has enabled information to our public in a way that didn’t exist before. So people are thinking differently about who we are as a nation, and who they are as individuals, not necessarily in race and ethnicity, but in all different fashions. And so we need to ask ourselves, are we collecting the same type of data? The data that we used to collect, is it still relevant now? Should we be adapting it? That’s why I’m so excited the Office of Management and Budget has initiated a review of the race and ethnicity standards. So we’ll be working with them and we’re looking forward to that. But all of that meshes with this notion of taking a fresh look at who we are as people, as human beings, and how we can contribute to our nation as the Census Bureau careerstaff by bringing our whole selves to the table and rethinking what does quality mean? How can we create more relevant data? How can we be more timely?
Tom Temin And just a final question in a more practical manner. There is a bill from Representative Carolyn Maloney that would codify some of the changes, such as GAO having say on new questions in future surveys, and also to make sure that there is no political influence, or undue political influence, in census operations. Is that bill needed do you think or what’s going on there?
Robert Santos Well, what’s going on is that Congress is simply doing its due diligence. It is doing what it feels is appropriate in these times and more power to them for doing that. My official response is that I will work under any condition, under any bills, under any statutes, or just with the status quo. It doesn’t matter. My role is to make sure that the Census Bureau is objective, maintains and increases its scientific integrity, is transparent, is sensitive to the needs of the public, serves the American people, Congress and other stakeholders and maintains its independence because we don’t have scientific integrity if we don’t have independence and some measure of autonomy. And because of that, to me personally, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a bill or not. I will work under any conditions. I welcome Congress doing its due diligence, but I’m prepared to work under any circumstances to advance the mission of the Census Bureau, and to help its career staff become even better.
Tom Temin Robert Santos is director of the US Census Bureau. Thanks so much for joining me.
Robert Santos Oh thank you so much.
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