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Census Needs Strong Objective Leadership—Now

An empty chair in front of business people.

The 2020 census is fast approaching and the Census Bureau has been without permanent leadership for months. A controversial appointee for the Deputy Census Director position recently withdrew. The Trump Administration needs to work quickly to put in place qualified, objective leadership so the Bureau can focus on getting as accurate as possible a count in the census.

The decennial census may sound a bit boring but it is an extremely important function, which may be why it is one of the few specific governmental responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution. The population information helps directly shape our democracy and the balance of power because it is used to determine the number of Congressional representatives each state sends to DC. After the 2010 census, eight states gained Congressional seats and 10 states lost seats. The 2020 census will decide the next set of states to gain or lose seats in the House of Representatives.

The census information also helps direct close to $600 billion in government spending every year. Considering we will rely on this information for a decade, until the 2030 census, the numbers we get will likely impact trillions of dollars in government spending.

So the census isn’t just a statistical exercise to satisfy our curiosity; it has real and significant impact. It is, therefore, vital that the count be as accurate possible—not an easy task. It takes years of planning and preparation, and an ongoing investment of time and resources. One key to success in the effort is strong, qualified, nonpartisan leadership.

The Census Bureau has two senior leadership positions—Director and Deputy Director. Both positions have been vacant for months. The last deputy director, Nancy Potok, left in January 2017 to accept appointment as Chief Statistician within the Office of Management and Budget. Then the last director, John H. Thompson, resigned at the end of June 2017. Since July, Dr. Ron Jarmin and Dr. Enrique Lamas have served as acting Director and Deputy Director, respectively.

The Trump Administration has spent the last few months working toward appointing Thomas Brunell, a Texas political science professor, to the Deputy Director position, which does not require Senate confirmation. News of the pending appointment leaked last year and Census documents revealed that Brunell was scheduled to start in November 2017.

Brunell turned out to be a controversial choice, in part because he, with degrees in political science, had little education or experience in statistics or related mathematics used in large data collection. He also had no experience managing the personnel, budget, and resources of a large organization, which the Census Bureau with its 4,000+ personnel would certainly be considered.

But voting and civil rights groups’ strongest objections stemmed from Brunell’s repeated role in defending Republican efforts to redistrict states to advantage their party—gerrymandering. Several Republican-controlled state legislatures have hired Brunell to serve as an expert in defending redistricting efforts, at least three of which (Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia) were struck down by courts as being racial gerrymandering. In the North Carolina case, the court described the maps Brunell defended as being “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court.” Brunell also authored Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America, which argued that gerrymandered districts that excessively favored one party over another were better for voters than balanced districts where either party could win. Given this background and the importance of the census in setting Congressional representation numbers, groups feared that Brunell might introduce partisan politics into the census process and try to intentionally tilt the results to favor Republicans.

Brunell recently withdrew from consideration with no stated reason for the decision. Given the strong opposition to his appointment, many will see this development as being for the best, but it puts the Census Bureau back at square one in terms of permanent leadership.

The Administration should move quickly to appoint qualified, impartial officials to the Director and Deputy Director positions. Given the extensive Census Bureau experience of the current acting Director and Deputy Director, it seems logical that the Administration should carefully consider each of them for possible permanent assignment to the positions. Appointments, not just for the Census Bureau but across all agencies, can be challenging for an administration. Placing greater emphasis on experience and capacity rather than political affiliation or agenda should be the standard approach for government appointments. Such an approach should result in a broader pool of qualified candidates, help avoid conflicts of interest, and make clear to the public that effective management is the priority.

By: Sean Moulton
Open Government Program Manager, POGO

Photo of Sean Moulton Sean Moulton is the Open Government Program Manager at POGO.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Inherently Governmental Functions, Effective Government

Authors: Sean Moulton

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