Census Nominee’s Full Plate

Carl Bialik
The Wall Street Journal
June 8, 2013
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My print column examines the record of President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Census Bureau, John H. Thompson, a longtime Census employee who departed after the 2000 census to join the NORC nonprofit research organization at the University of Chicago, where he later rose to become president and chief executive.

Thompson, or whoever becomes the new Census chief, will face a host of difficulties, including enabling online responses to census questionnaires without diminishing privacy. Convincing Americans to share personal information with the government online may have gotten even harder after this week, with reports of a National Security Agency program, dubbed Prism, that monitors users’ online activity with major Web companies.

“For citizens concerned about government overreach, there is going to be strong cross-agency influence,” said Kenneth Prewitt, census director during the 2000 census and now a social scientist at Columbia University.

Bruce Chapman, who led the agency during the early part of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, added that Prism “cannot help but worry the Census or any federal agency that relies on the trust of the public.”

Martha Farnsworth Riche, who directed the agency from 1994 to 1998, was particularly concerned, saying “Considering this news in addition to other fears of involuntary data sharing on the web, I would think that it will be very difficult to create the ability to respond to the census online.”

However, while Steve Murdock, a demographer at Rice University who led the agency during the end of George W. Bush’s time in the White House, acknowledged the potential diminution of trust, he expected that nonetheless “the public will demand an electronic mode of response and especially for the short form of the census there should be high levels of acceptance since the items are not very intrusive.”

Those four, and three other of the agency’s previous directors, said this week in interviews by phone or email that Thompson was the right person to head the agency and face challenges such as Prism. Most know him personally, some having worked with him when he led the agency’s decennial census in 2000. And most were enthusiastic.

While Thompson awaits confirmation, Acting Census Director Thomas L. Mesenbourg continues to lead the agency. He also endorsed the pick, saying in a statement that Thompson is “uniquely qualified to lead the Census Bureau.”

Some statisticians also lent approval to the pick. “I know Dr. Thompson and believe he is an outstanding choice,” said Hal Stern, a statistician at the University of California, Irvine.

Barbara Everitt Bryant, director of the bureau from 1989 to 1993, called Thompson “a seasoned, apolitical civil servant who has had more experience in census-taking than any person alive.” Bryant, research scientist-emerita at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, added, “He is well-liked within the Census Bureau and staff will like having one of their own appointed.”

Former directors spoke highly of the agency’s staff. Vincent Barabba, who led the agency for two stints, the earlier one starting 40 years ago, recalled that “an employee would never do anything wrong, not because the director would yell at them but because professional associates would say, “Why would you do something so dumb?”

Chapman, who now directs the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that he founded, said he found the Census staff “almost always proactive and eager to assist data users.”

“One of the outstanding things about the Census Bureau is the number of people who have been in the Census Bureau for 10, 20, 30 years,” Murdock added. “This is a very dedicated set of people.”

Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition backing census accuracy, said his time at the Census Bureau reminded him of his families’ military background. “I found the Census Bureau to be like that — incredibly mission-oriented toward collection of the data.”

A major mission for the agency and its next director is to test new technologies, such as privacy-protected online response modes. “What is the next technology?” Bryant said. “The Census Bureau will be ready to embrace it, or invent it, and also knows when to quit using it and move on to something better.” History backs this up, Bryant said, noting that decennial census needs drove development of a 19th century precursor to the computer, as well as detailed digital mapping that later became the basis of the Global Positioning System.

“A lot of people love to deride the Census Bureau as an agency with old technology, but historical facts would show that’s not the case,” Murdock said.

The question for 2020 is whether new technology will be ready by then. “If they’re not tested properly in the next couple of years, the Census Bureau isn’t going to use them,” Sparks said. “It’s a process with many moving parts. The cake has to go into the oven by the middle part of the decade.”

That may be too much lead time for today’s rapidly changing technological landscape, some ex-chiefs said. “You don’t even know for sure what technology will be by 2020 yet you have to plan a technologically savvy census, Prewitt said.

Barabba added, “If you’re planning now for the year 2020, I can only guarantee you things you think today are going to happen in 2020, aren’t going to happen. Planning needs to be much more flexible and adaptable.”

The job brings personal as well as professional ones. Prewitt recalled late-night worries over the possibility that someone had accessed private census data and revealed, say, that Chelsea Clinton was triple-counted in 2000, at three separate residences.

And former directors say the job pays much less than qualified candidates can earn in the private sector; they typically took a pay cut to take the job, and got a bump in salary after leaving. Thompson earned more than $485,000 as head of NORC in 2011, according to tax filings. The Census Bureau director makes between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, according to two recent directors.

Thompson this past week referred requests for comment to the Commerce Department, which houses the Census Bureau. A Commerce spokeswoman passed on inquiries to the White House, which didn’t make Thompson available for an interview.

“The salary is a great problem, and limits interests,” said Robert M. Groves, who left the position last year and is now the provost of Georgetown University. “It reduces the candidates to those who are motivated dominantly by public service.”

Other former directors said salaries shouldn’t dissuade candidates. “If a person felt the amount he was going to get paid was the determining factor in taking the job, better he would not take the job,” Barabba said. “If the person knows what the census was like, he would take the job no matter what. In that job, you get to deal with all aspects of our society, both economic and social. That’s what should attract someone to the job.”

Added Chapman, “I doubt that anyone decides whether to accept a nomination as Census director based on salary. It’s an honor to serve.”

Rod Little, a statistician at the University of Michigan who has worked at the agency, said the bigger problem with finances may be hiring top staffers. “When trying to recruit people on the research side, it’s difficult to attract top people because Census can’t compete with salaries in academia,” Little said.

Prewitt said the scrutiny that comes with the confirmation process, including digging up records for the last 10 years of foreign travel, was as big a disincentive to taking the job as the salary.

Thompson seems to be ready for that scrutiny. Prewitt said he mentioned recently to Thompson, over lunch, that he’d known his former colleague for 15 years but didn’t know his political leanings. Thompson, he said, replied, “When I first realized how intensely partisan this was going to be, I decided I couldn’t have a political affiliation” heading into the 2000 census — and he’s stuck to that ever since.