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.

. . .

This article was originally posted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC on December 7.

The Cannibalization of the Census Bureau

A local newspaper in Hagerstown, Maryland, published a surprising article that suggests the U.S. Census Bureau may be diverting funds from important surveys like the American Community Survey (ACS) in order to provide ongoing funding for activities supporting the 2020 Census, because Congress flat-lined FY 2018 decennial census funding that expires today.

This activity is, of course, permitted by an anomaly contained in the present Continuing Resolution and passed by Congress to keep the federal government running. But, the effect on the ACS is now clear.

Politicization of the 2020 Census?

Numerous stories appeared in the media last week about the possible appointment of Professor Thomas Brunell, a GOP redistricting expert with no known management experience, to be deputy director of the Census Bureau.

Professor Brunell would be a political appointment replacing a career employee in the chief day-to-day operations job at the bureau. Several articles spell out the consequences of such an appointment by the Trump administration:

 

 

Critical Census Budget Action Needed

The Continuing Resolution (CR) which froze both the overall federal budget and the Census Bureau budget at FY 2017 levels expires in early December. This could require another short-term CR if Congress can’t agree on a FY 2018 budget compromise. Or, Congress could immediately enact a final FY 2018 budget.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have proposed an additional $187 million for the Census Bureau for FY 2018, to mostly pay for much-needed IT systems development. And, the administration now says it will request an additional $3.3 billion in lifecycle costs between now and the decennial count to pay for the full costs of the 2020 Census!

The Census Project believes the administration’s FY 2018 request for the 2020 Census is still too low. But, the project does support the additional funds that have been requested.

A letter from about 100 Census Project stakeholders to congressional policymakers describes the new administration funding request for FY 2018 as “an important down payment towards the additional $3.3 billion the administration says it needs over the next three years to conduct a fair, accurate and successful 2020 Census.”

“No funds are included in the revised FY 2018 Census Bureau budget for timely development of the full advertising campaign, launch of the Partnership Program, restoring cancelled field tests in rural areas, or to adapt operations to remedy the impact of disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California that increase the risk of an incomplete census count in those communities,” the letter continued. “The new request does not include sufficient funding for historic numbers of partnership specialists, who help state and local officials and trusted community leaders support census operations through focused outreach and promotion to their constituencies. These operations help reduce costs by boosting self-response and increase accuracy by targeting messages to historically hard-to-count communities. We strongly urge additional funding for these important activities in the final omnibus funding measure for Fiscal 2018.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney has introduced legislation (H.R. 4013) to provide the Census Bureau with $1.9 billion in FY 2018 — an increase of $251 million above the administration’s adjusted request, or $438 million more funding this fiscal year.

Congress is now at a critical crossroad in terms of funding the 2020 Census.

Getting Out the Hard-to-Count

There are no census undercount estimates for census tracts or neighborhoods. Mail return rates are often used as a proxy for the risk of being missed in the census. Based on poor mail return rates, the Census Bureau labels some areas as Hard-To-Count (HTC). As might be expected, HTC tracts are mostly found in communities of color and rural areas.

A recent point-and-click U.S. chart prepared by CUNY shows where the HTC areas are located.

Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson says he believes partnership specialists, working with community organizations, churches, local businesses, etc., and employed by the Census Bureau in HTC areas, helped reduce the undercount in the last census.

However, partnership specialists need to be deployed several years in advance of the decennial census to establish local relationships. Former Director Thompson believes that 100-200 partnership specialists should already be employed at this point in the decennial planning cycle.

But, there is no money in the FY 2018 budget beyond the 40 specialists that have already been hired. And, even with the initial 40 hires, it is unclear if they are working in HTC areas.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated in recent congressional testimony that the new 2020 Census budget was going to increase the number of partnership specialists from the 800 budgeted in 2010 to 1,000 for the 2020 Census.

The Census Project believes money should be appropriated by Congress as it considers the FY 2018 Census Bureau budget in early December for additional partnership specialists to target HTC areas.

2020 Census Funding Increase Needed Urgently

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association

The Census Bureau is the cornerstone of the federal statistical system and the critical data resource for a vast array of local decision making in the public and private sectors. It is a irreplaceable resource. And, it’s in jeopardy.

That was the message delivered by former Census Bureau chief John Thompson in his address at APA’s 2017 Daniel Burnham Forum.

Thompson noted the challenges faced during the 2010 count and he pointed to congressional funding decisions this year and next as vital to a successful 2020 Census. He called on planners and others who depend on a range of census data and products to make a vigorous case for the Census on Capitol Hill.

In an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed Thompson’s views. Secretary Ross told the committee that the Census is “the bedrock upon which we construct our system of democratic representation.” His testimony highlighted new estimates that the 2020 Census would need $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.3 billion from 2015 estimates.

Funding challenges related to the 2020 count pose problems for other essential Census Bureau projects and products. The same week that Secretary Ross noted the “urgent need” for decennial count funding, the Census Bureau announced that the Economic Census would be delayed by at least six months. The Economic Census provides key data about economic activity and employment. The delay will likely have negative effects later on both companies and local governments who rely on the data.

Similar problems could be in store for other Census activities, including the American Community Survey, as the Census Bureau shifts already strained resources to cover 2020 preparation shortfalls.

Census isn’t alone among federal data agencies when it comes to facing long term funding challenges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has seen it’s budget fall by 10 percent since 2005. And, in an era when communities and companies are grabbling with major changes associated with ride sharing, safety, and the emergence of autonomous vehicles, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has suffered a 21 percent decline.

At a time when the federal government should be modernizing its data and statistical systems to keep pace with growing demands and a changing “big data” and “smart cities” landscape, these vital agencies look likely to fall further behind.

At the same time Congress underfunds statistical agencies, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan task force has released a new report on “evidence-based policymaking” urging a variety of governmental reforms but also lamenting “insufficient resources and limited flexibility.” Leaders on both sides of the aisle hailed the report but what impact it has on the more challenging work of crafting appropriations bills remains to be seen.

Over the next few months, Congress will wrap up work on current fiscal year spending bills and begin work on next year’s budget framework. National Community Planning Month is the perfect time to urge Congress to provide the funds necessary to ensure that communities have the information and data needed to plan well.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on October 19.

How to Talk to Your Member of Congress

As you advocate for a robust federal statistical system, one way to gain the attention of your member of Congress or their staff is to be familiar with your congressional district’s economy and workforce using federal statistics.

Recently the American Statistical Association, in partnership with APDU and the Congressional Management Foundation, sponsored a webinar tutorial on the subject. The recording highlights the rich trove of resources from Bureau of Economic Affairs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census that contribute to this important set of data.