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.

Senate Appropriators Discuss Census Funding Concerns with Commerce Secretary

By Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs, Insights Association

“Not only did the Government Accountability Office add the 2020 Census to its high-risk list, but a critical computer system was recently discovered to have surpassed its budget by $309 million. As the 2020 Census approaches, such news does not instill confidence in the Department’s preparation for this constitutional requirement.”

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) opened discussion about the Census Bureau at a recent hearing reviewing the Department of Commerce’s FY2018 budget proposal with a bunch of concerns about the decennial Census and how to fund it. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS Subcommittee, which determines funding for the Census Bureau.

The 2020 Census “is very important to this committee,” Shelby continued, “because this is a very expensive item” with a “ballooning cost.” He asked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to prioritize “activities to reduce overall cost.”

”How,” Shelby asked, “does the 2020 budget request keep the budget on track to ensure that the 2020 census remains at or below the cost of the 2010 census,” and “are changes planned for the upcoming year that will affect current cost projections?”

Secretary Ross started with the resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson. “We have appointed a temporary replacement for him and are actively seeking a new permanent director of the census. We hope to have that completed as soon as we possibly can.”

The Census Bureau has “been a great concern” for Ross, specifically “making sure we do accurately count every person where that person normally lives” and doing so “as economically as we can.” He continued:

“Census as you know undertook a very large technological change in the way the Census is taken. Their hope in that is to preserve the accuracy and yet reduce the budgetary cost. My concerns about it have been the complexity of what they’re trying to do and the number of moving parts that have to be brought together at the right time under the right cost. I’m particularly concerned that many of the key contracts are on a time and material basis and that is a very dangerous way to do contracting in that it has an implied incentive for the contracting partner to perhaps use more time than one might if it were on a fixed-cost basis.”

In response, the Commerce Department finance staff have partnered with OMB staff “to do a crash review of what has been going on and why there was suddenly this 47% surprise overrun, what are the implications for the relationships between the census department and these contractors going forward, and what may be the maximum possible cost we could encounter should we continue with the full technological effort underway, or should there be some modification.”

Ross indicated that he did not “have a high degree of confidence in the budget” request from the White House for FY18, but he promised the subcommittee “that when we come back, it will be a number we can stand behind.”

For more background, see the Insights Association 1-pagers on Census funding and the American Community Survey (ACS).

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This article was originally posted on the Insights Association’s website on June 20.

What Price Democracy?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Census Bureau was off to a relatively good start this year in the mysterious and powerful world of those who hold the purse strings, known fondly to many of us as the House and Senate appropriations committees. Or so I thought.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took the hot seat before the Senate panel that funds the federal government’s commerce, justice and science programs. This would be the subcommittee (albeit, with several new members) that barely acknowledged the existence of a census at last year’s budget hearing. The panel is heavily populated by lawmakers from coastal states, who apparently have nightmares about uncharted weather catastrophes and depleted fishing stocks.

But the 2020 Census got their attention this year, maybe because the Obama Administration requested a 91 percent funding increase to ramp up planning in Fiscal Year 2016 for the next decennial count. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, will be in full swing five years from now.

Panel Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) actually led off his opening statement and questioning with census-related concerns. He noted matter-of-factly the need for a significant funding increase to double-down on 2020 Census planning, and he cautioned the secretary to closely watch preparations to avoid future cost-overruns that could leave less money available for other Commerce Dept. programs. The subcommittee’s senior Democrat (and former chairwoman), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), briefly mentioned the technology “boondoggle” before the 2010 Census, and that was it. On to New England fisheries, support for U.S. manufacturers and that pesky “polar gap” in weather satellite coverage.

But things went downhill for the Census Bureau from there. The new chairman of the House Commerce/Justice/Science spending panel doesn’t much care for the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. It’s “intrusive,” he told Secretary Pritzker when she appeared before his subcommittee this week, and the government doesn’t have a right to ask about anything other than the number of people in a household… or ancestry. Ancestry? Where did that come from?

But let’s move on. Ever since the Census Bureau wrapped up the last decennial census, appropriators have indicated that they aren’t willing to spend more on the 2020 Census than they did on the 2010 count. The lifecycle cost of the last population canvass was roughly $13 billion. The Census Bureau thinks it can meet that goal if all of the sweeping reforms it is considering work as envisioned. That’s a big “if,” what with budget shortfalls delaying, cancelling or streamlining critical research and testing of these new initiatives over the past few years. We simply don’t know yet if a markedly redesigned census can ensure an accurate count, especially in historically undercounted communities, and produce the detailed race and ethnicity data needed to implement the Voting Rights Act, as a threshold matter.

But Rep. Culberson apparently isn’t satisfied with those cost-saving efforts. “We don’t have $13 billion to spend on a census,” the chairman told Secretary Pritzker. The congressman wanted to know if the Census Bureau is ready to use Internal Revenue Service records and other government databases to help bring down census costs. The secretary gamely tried to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing, to see if that idea, which of course is under consideration, is a viable option. But I’m not sure the chairman has thought this through. If the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough money to thoroughly vet the use of administrative records to supplement or replace direct address canvassing and door-to-door visits, the 2020 Census could cost $1 or $2 billion more than the congressman says we can’t afford to spend. Nevertheless, Rep. Culberson again made it clear that “we won’t have the money next year” to meet the Census Bureau’s budget request.

And that tells me just about everything I need to know. Because if Congress can’t spend $13 billion over the course of a decade to carry out its very first obligation under the U.S. Constitution and to ensure fair political representation for all communities, no matter how difficult to count, then we might have to kiss our storied democracy good-bye and book a seat on that one-way mission to Mars. After all, the Johnson Space Center is pretty darn close to Chairman Culberson’s Houston district. I’m thinking some of that census money will end up fueling a mission to outer space.

Radio Silence

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It must have been spring fever. In a flurry of activity in May and June, House and Senate appropriators dutifully considered and approved their respective bills to fund Commerce Department (and many other) agencies next year, including a reader favorite: the U.S. Census Bureau. The House of Representatives went one step further, burning the midnight oil to pass the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) over a two-day period.

But now it’s mid-July. You’ve been sitting at the edge of your seats, waiting anxiously for the next episode of the Census Bureau funding soap opera, ready to swing into action to save 2020 Census innovations and reliable ACS data from death by a thousand budget cuts. Or maybe you haven’t been thinking about this at all; a good book at the beach sounds like way more fun. But on the off chance you’re wondering about the radio silence since the Senate stood poised to tackle its version of the Commerce spending bill (S. 2437) more than a month ago, let me fill you in what you missed. Nothing.

In fact, the Senate couldn’t even muster the votes to start debate on the bill. The minority leader balked over an issue, completely unrelated to the bill, that no one quite recalls anymore. (I think it had something to do with coal.) Now, everyone seems to have thrown their hands up in the air and started counting down the days until a blissfully long August recess, after which it will be time to wipe the mothballs off the ineradicable Continuing Funding Resolution.

And here’s where you need to put your book aside and roll out of your lounge chair. Because if you thought the House’s $238 million raid on the Census Bureau’s budget spelled deep trouble for 2020 Census planning and other core surveys, think about the consequences of no funding increase at all for the nation’s premier cyclical program. As the name implies, a continuing resolution (CR) funds federal agencies at this year’s levels. Not exactly an ideal situation for a 10-year activity that must “ramp up” to stay on schedule, with immutable deadlines looming. Chief among those are required reports to Congress on the topics (April 1, 2017) and questions (April 1, 2018) for the 2020 Census (including the American Community Survey, the modern version of the census long form); Census Day (April 1, 2020); population totals used to reapportion the House of Representatives (December 31, 2020); and detailed population data to redraw congressional districts (March 31, 2021). Oh, the irony.

The Census Bureau, already behind schedule due to previous budgets cuts and funding delays, has four major 2020 Census field tests planned for FY 2015. Under the microscope will be cost-saving innovations and questionnaire updates: the feasibility of replacing universal pre-census address canvassing with targeted updating; using automation, real-time data and administrative records to manage and streamline costly follow-up with unresponsive households; new strategies to boost self-response, especially on the Internet, as well as methods for pre-registration and processing electronic responses that lack unique identifiers; revised questions on race and ethnicity; assistance for non-English speakers; and improving estimates of mail, online and telephone response. By the end of 2015, the Census Bureau must lock in a design for the next census and begin systems and operational development.

What to do, people? Time for what Washington-insiders quaintly call an “anomaly,” more easily understood as an exception to flat-line funding in the CR. Without one, either the 2015 census tests will start falling like dominos, jeopardizing the reforms needed to modernize the headcount, or the bureau will have to scale back other surveys to pay for them. The 2020 Census isn’t the only cyclical program at risk; planning starts next year for the quinquennial (still love that word!) 2017 Economic Census.

An anomaly for the Census Bureau in the all-but-inevitable FY 2015 CR seems like a no-brainer. Whether Congress will come to its census… er, senses… remains to be seen.

A Sweet Pot of Honey

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

News flash: The 2020 Census was on the congressional radar screen — if only for a few brief, but shining, moments.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who heads an appropriations subcommittee, opened his panel’s hearing this week on the Commerce Department’s FY2015 budget request by talking about the census. Eureka!

The Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee amicably discussed the Commerce Department’s funding needs with Secretary Penny Pritzker for two hours. The secretary gave a repeat performance the next day before Senate appropriators. As lawmakers took their turns questioning a personable and well-prepared Pritzker, I was all ears.

Chairman Wolf noted the Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding increase ($754M) for 2020 Census research, testing and planning. (The 2020 Census includes the American Community Survey.) He hoped the cost of the next census wouldn’t exceed the $13 billion price tag for the last one. Which he then reminded everyone was the cost of a new weather satellite. Uh oh.

The National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Satellite and Information Service, and their parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), got a lot of air-time at both hearings. There are sea bass fishermen in Rep. Andy Harris’ (R-MD) coastal Maryland district. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is concerned about weather satellites. Ranking Member Chakah Fattah (D-PA) praised the weather agency for saving lives.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member on both the appropriations committee and subcommittee (translation: influential), schooled me in the challenges facing the red snapper industry. After learning about catch limits, stock assessments and curtailed fishing seasons, I shall henceforth view any selection of a fish entrée as a contribution to the nation’s economic engine. (Putting a positive spin on things, Secretary Pritzker noted that red snappers are getting bigger.)

But I digress. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) (also of both the committee and subcommittee) reminded everyone several times that her panel was heavy on coastal representation. A virtual caucus of legislators knee-deep in the intricacies of the Commerce Department’s vast reach over everything marine, all under the auspices of NOAA. Which eats up more than 60 percent of the department’s budget. Did I mention that there is a “polar gap” in satellite coverage, which can affect livelihoods along our – um – coasts? When Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) highlighted the importance of disaster assistance for fisheries, the chairwoman practically said “amen.”

Speaking of the economy, I learned that Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is responsible for doling out community rebuilding grants after a natural disaster. For example, after devastating tornadoes hit Alabama a few years ago. In the district of subcommittee member Rep. Robert Aderholdt (R-AL). Which is not on the coast, by the way.

Appropriators are very concerned about the economy, especially rebuilding the manufacturing sector, stopping unfair trade practices and boosting exports, creating jobs, and supporting innovation. That would be Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Minority Business Development Agency, International Trade Administration, Patent and Trademark Office, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Which brings me back to the Census Bureau, one of 11 major Commerce agencies. After my “eureka” moment at the start of the House hearing, I had to wait a good long while for the topic to come up again. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) finally weighed in, noting that the census needs to ramp up for 2020 and wondering if the Census Bureau would be ready. Cue the secretary’s talking points about a “timely, trusted, and accurate” census for a lower cost per household. Good, said Rep. Diaz-Balart, because after the 2010 Census, Miami-Hialeah area officials were shocked when their Community Development Block Grant funding went south. Something must have been wrong with the count, the congressman said; perhaps there were too many vacant high-rise units — symbols of the recession’s real estate bust — in the count? And after suggesting that the Census Bureau work more closely with local leaders, it was on to travel and tourism because, you know, Commerce houses the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Miami is a gateway to the U.S. for much of the world. It’s also on the coast.

Rep. Wolf did loop back around to the census during his closing set of questions. Recent data breaches at major retailers clearly were on his mind when he expressed doubt about using personal devices for door-to-door interviewing. Cyber-security is a top priority for the Census Bureau, the secretary assured him, pointedly emphasizing the need to test the “Bring Your Own Device” concept. NIST, by the way, is ground-zero for protecting the nation’s cyber-security infrastructure.

The chairman also sought assurances that the Census Bureau is taking seriously congressional concerns about the American Community Survey’s response burden on the public. Oh, and he questioned the administration’s proposal to cut $45 million from the National Weather Service’s budget.

The Census Bureau’s work barely crossed the Senate radar screen, save a couple of references to the debacle with handheld devices before the 2010 enumeration. Sen. Mikulski did cheerfully inform the secretary that fishing is part of Maryland’s “psychic identity.”

The total request for the Commerce Department is $8.8 billion. That $1.2 billion for the Census Bureau in FY2015 is starting to look like one sweet pot of honey.

‘Tis the Season (It’s Budget Time Again!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season! Which wouldn’t merit a chuckle except, doesn’t it seem like appropriations season is year-round now? Maybe it’s just me.

This gives me a chance to sound like a broken record – not an enviable trait when I am trying to get your attention. But President Obama has unveiled his budget request for Fiscal Year 2015, and it is my solemn duty as an advocate of all things census to make visions of smartphone-friendly questionnaires, linked government databases and shrinking dollar signs dance in your head.

The Obama Administration requested $1.211 billion dollars for the Census Bureau. That’s a tempting pot of gold for lawmakers looking to fund programs that constituents can see and touch. Research and testing for a statistical exercise five years away? Not so exciting.

Still, the Census Bureau needs every penny of its request to keep 2020 Census planning on track and to maintain a robust, comprehensive and user-friendly American Community Survey (ACS). Let’s break this down, shall we?

The FY2015 proposal is $266 million more than the current year discretionary appropriation of $945 million, a 28 percent increase. (The Census Bureau also receives roughly $30 million for two mandatory surveys.) All of the new money is for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account ($961M requested; +269M increase), which includes the 2020 Census and ongoing ACS ($689M requested; +226M increase).

The window of opportunity for 2020 Census research and testing will close in 2015, when the Census Bureau must select a design framework (a decision already a year behind schedule) and begin the second phase of census planning: operational design and systems development. In a related new initiative, the president requested a bump in funding to build an enterprise-wide integrated system for data collection and processing (Data Processing Systems — $65M requested; +34M increase). Sure would beat having unique systems for each survey and census, don’t you think? And the Census Bureau hopes to resume the Boundary and Annexation Survey, suspended this year due to budget cuts. The results come in handy when you want to put all of those enumerated people and houses in the right city, village or town.

Remember congressional angst over the ACS that led to an embarrassing 2012 House vote to eliminate the survey (with no Plan B as to how the government would function without the data)? The Census Bureau must complete a well-timed, comprehensive review of ACS content and methods next year, ahead of a national field test in 2016 and submission of topics to Congress by April 1, 2017.

The Census Bureau needs money for other programs that have been in congressional crosshairs. The 2012 Economic Census is almost history (FY2015 is the last of its six-year cycle), but as Blood, Sweat, and Tears once sang, what comes down must go up. Or something like that. Anyway, the end of one six-year quinquennial census cycle is the start of a new one; the $119 million request (+5M increase) will allow the Census Bureau to finish analyzing and disseminating 2012 Economic Census data and start planning for the 2017 canvass of American businesses.

Finally, the president is proposing $248 million for the Census Bureau’s second major account, Salaries and Expenses (S&E), a decrease of $4 million from current year funding. The ongoing activities covered under S&E include vital economic, demographic and social statistics collected through the Current Population Survey, Survey of Income and Program Participation, and other programs.

We’ll have more information about the Census Bureau’s plans for 2015 when the Commerce Department releases detailed budget justifications in a week or two. In the meantime, congressional appropriators are getting down to work. The deadline for submitting testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies is March 31; the Senate subcommittee deadline is April 25. Let’s see if we can make the foundation of our democracy and basis of informed decision-making sound as exciting as we know it is.

Sequestration Cuts’ Impact on Statistical Agencies

Steve PiersonThis blog post is provided by Steve Pierson of the American Statistical Association. Steve found three letters from statistical agencies that indicate the impact of the so-called sequestration cuts on these agencies.

In response to a request from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (MD-D), federal agencies have sent letters to Mikulski on how sequestration would affect them. The letters are posted on the Senate Appropriations Commitee website and contain sequestration impacts for the Census Bureau, BLS and NASS. The other agency letters do not go to a level of detail to include the impacts on other federal statistical agencies (BEA, BJS, BTS, EIA. ERS, NCES, NCHS, NCSES, IRS SOI, SSA ORES).

In the letter from the Commerce Department, the following impacts for the Census Bureau are listed:

Sequestration would have to cut a total of $46 million from the Department’s Census Bureau. The Census Bureau will be forced to significantly cut contract dollars and not fill hundreds of vacancies, pushing back research and testing for the 2020 Decennial Census as well as seriously delaying the release of critical economic and demographic data needed for this calendar year.

The last benchmark of economic statistics supporting America’s assessment of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and other key economic indicators was taken in 2007, prior to the recession. If the sequestration cuts move forward, the Census Bureau will be ready to make major departures from past operational designs that are intended to save money without diminishing quality. The Census Bureau has committed to executing a Census that would cost less per household in real dollars. Cuts now are virtually guaranteed to force the Census Bureau to ask for larger investments later, putting at risk that goal of achieving more significant forced to impose a six-month delay in releasing vital statistics for these indicators, putting at risk our ability to take accurate stock of current economic conditions and well-being and potentially impacting policy making and economic decisions in the private sector.

Furthermore, delays in developmental work for the 2020 Decennial Census will increase the risk that the Census Bureau will not be ready to make major departures from past operational designs that are intended to save money without diminishing quality. The Census Bureau has committed to executing a Census that would cost less per household in real dollars. Cuts now are virtually guaranteed to force the Census Bureau to ask for larger investments later, putting at risk that goal of achieving more significant savings.

In the letter from the Department of Agriculture, the section on the National Agricultural Statistical Service states that sequestration would stop FY13 scheduled activities for the Census of Agriculture including data processing. The letter goes on to say that data will be incomplete and not statistically sound for publication, which will “negatively affect decisions made by farmers, business and governments and ultimately will bring volatility to food markets and impact prices consumers pay.”

The Department of Labor letter states, “With millions in reductions, BLS would have to eliminate or reduce some of its programs.”

Presumably what is presented above for these three agency is paraphrased from much more substantive documents presented by Census, BLS and NASS to their respective departments.

Given the impacts of sequestration to the federal statistical agencies (and NSF and NIH), the ASA continues to urge its members to head the call late last year of 2012 President Bob Rodriguez: ASA President Asks ASA Members to Help Avoid Steep Cuts to NSF, NIH, and Federal Statistical Agencies.

See also: