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.

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

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:



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!