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!