A Director for the Ages (Or At Least for 2020)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

A reporter called me to ask if there was anything afoot at the White House to nominate a census director for President Obama’s second term. (Dr. Robert Groves resigned as director last August to become provost at Georgetown University; Deputy Census Director Thomas Mesenbourg has served as acting director since then.)

My first reaction: YES!, someone other than census junkies are thinking about this nomination. My second reaction, after chatting with the reporter about the relative priority and importance of such a nomination at this early point in the decennial census cycle, was that this mid-cycle appointment might be the most significant in recent history. That’s because the next census director will set in stone how and at what cost the Census Bureau will conduct the next count — and he or she might very well oversee its implementation, as well.

You see, last year, Congress passed a bill streamlining the nomination and appointment process for various senior federal agency positions. The bill (S. 679, now Public Law 112-166) gave the census director a fixed five-year term, similar to that of the commissioner of labor statistics and other statistical agency heads. The director could serve for up to two terms. Hallelujah! The statistical community and several members of Congress have been advancing the idea for decades. (My former census subcommittee chairman and ranking member, Reps. Tom Sawyer and Tom Ridge, drafted such a bill at the time of the 1990 census.)

Census advocates have long lamented the disruption to census planning, preparation and execution caused not only by frequent turnover at the head of the Census Bureau, often tied to changes in administration, but by long White House delays in nominating census directors and further delays in Senate confirmations. A fixed term that outlasts a presidential term would span half of the decennial census “life cycle” — either preparation or operational — and allow for continuity of vision, goals and managerial decisions. If a president is re-elected, or a new president is happy with the sitting bureau head, the director would be able to “see it through,” from start to finish.

Long stretches without a confirmed director also deprive the Census Bureau of influence needed to deal effectively with Congress and senior administration officials. With the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) under attack and budget sequestration looming, the bureau needs all the clout it can get to defend its raison d’etre and secure the resources necessary to maintain the quality of its programs.

The new law also lays out guidelines for the qualifications of a census director: experience managing a large organization, and expertise in gathering and working with statistics. Oh, and the president must nominate a candidate without regard to political affiliation. These requirements are otherwise known as a political balancing act, so as not to give those of the president’s political persuasion an undue advantage with the nomination. So, the director must be not just a lauded academic who’s been cloistered at a university for most of his or her career. Not just a corporate executive who doesn’t know confidence intervals from non-sampling error. No, someone who has experience leading the troops in a sizable bureaucracy and who can find his or her way around American FactFinder! And maybe who hasn’t voted in a while. Just sayin’.

So, yes, this census director selection is especially critical, even coming in a year ending in “3.” Assuming (praying for!) a nomination and confirmation some time this year, the new head-counter-in-charge will serve at least through 2018, halfway through the next presidential term and certainly through the 2020 census dress rehearsal, after which all but minimal tweaks to census design and methodology put the count at risk of disruption, and possibly until every drop of Census 2020 data is in the public domain. Even if the next president wants a new face in the director’s suite, the outgoing director could serve for up to one year until his or her successor takes the oath of office. By then, the wheels of the 2020 census will be turning across the land.

President Obama, please move this one up on your “to do” list and nominate a census director before another vital year of decennial census planning has passed and the ACS turns to dust!

10 thoughts on “A Director for the Ages (Or At Least for 2020)

  1. I appreciate this excellent and timely post by Terry Ann Lowenthal and I shall be happy to be briefed on her background which makes her so knowledgeable on this subject.I understand its importance as a former census commissioner of India for five years from 1994 to 1999.India has a long tradition of appointing the census commissioner for a term of five years,though unfortunately for the census there is no provision for serving two terms as envisioned in the above-mentioned bill passed by Congress.That is why I could not continue for another term after 1999,though the home secretary as the boss of the census department had strongly wanted that so as to ensure continuity and experienced oversight of the then upcoming 2001 census of India for which I had laid the foundation.
    I hope the benefit of the new law ensuring a fixed five year term and upto two terms for the census director will be reaped by the US census bureau quickly and be reflected in the US census,which I would rate as the best in the world, scaling even greater heights in future.

    1. Dr. Vijayanunni, I am honored to receive your comments on my most recent blog post; thank you for your kind words. I think the U.S., indeed, was slow to establish a fixed term for the Census Director. Not surprisingly, the nomination and confirmation of our director has been tinged with political concerns (such as whether to statistically adjust the census to compensate for a persistent undercount of certain population subgroups), as our enumeration is directly tied to the allocation of political representation at every civic level. Despite that factor, Census Directors in recent history have been highly qualified and have performed their duties in a non-partisan way, even amidst significant political pressure.

      Thank you for reading The Census Project Blog!

      Warmly, Terri Ann

      P.S. My brief biography is posted on The Census Project Blog website.

      1. Thank you very much indeed,Terri Ann,for your prompt and illuminating response as above and for directing me to your self-explanatory biodata on the website . As well-wishers of the US census,let us hope that this amendment will get implemented quickly and serve it well in future !

        I enjoyed reading all your census blogs and shall continue to do so!Thanks for sharing your interesting and informative views!

        Warm regards,Vijayanunni

        I hav

  2. U S Census will be benifitted to cnduct and bring out good results.
    SP Sharma, Dy Registrar general(Census&Tabulation) having served five Censuses of India.

    1. I had the oppurtunity to work with Dr. M. Vijayan Unni, during his 5 yearstennure as Registrar General & Census Commissioner India. I retired as Deputy Registrar (Census& Tabulation) after workin at five Indian Censues from 1961 through 2001 q and had worked closely with eight RGI&CCI. My tennure with Dr. Uni was veyeducative and fruitful.
      I wish you a very successful tennure as Director U S Census.
      S P Sharma .

  3. Terri Ann,you have mentioned above that “the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) is under attack”.Its future looks unclear to me.I had made the following post last year on this subject when I first learnt the news that the House had voted against continuing with the survey:
    “Director Groves,it was a shock to hear about the House voting to abandon the ACS which is an excellent survey throwing up valuable data.As census commissioner of India,I would have been happy to introduce such a highly productive survey in my country too.
    As for the compulsions of economy,the data collection activities of the census are far too important to be sacrificed at the altar of budget cuts. ..Contemporary data not collected is data lost forever.”
    Is there hope that this survey will be saved and that the sane voices like the censuspojectblog will be heard by the lawmakers?

    1. The House of Representatives’ votes last spring, first to make ACS response voluntary and then to eliminate the survey altogether, were a shock (although the first proposal was not entirely unexpected). Lawmakers supporting the proposals did not, by and large, give much thought to the usefulness of the data, but rather were driven by their “limited government” world view. A conservative block of House members believe government does not have the right to ask citizens such “personal” questions and that citizens do not have to provide information about themselves. Other lawmakers who supported the amendments went along for the ride with minimal understanding of how vital the data are to the functioning of government and the private sector.

      The House and Senate are now in negotiations to finalize an appropriations bill for the current fiscal year (2013). Cooler heads will likely prevail, and the ACS will live to see another day, but the entire episode demonstrates (in my opinion) that data users across a wide range of sectors cannot take the survey (or any data collection activity) for granted. Census stakeholders must engage in ongoing education of members of Congress and their staffs to ensure that legislators understand and appreciate the importance of the data.

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