Census asks employees to grade themselves to cut costs

Thursday - 9/6/2012, 5:46am EDT

Nancy Potek, deputy director, Census Bureau, Part 1

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The Census Bureau is expanding an initiative that asks employees to assess their job skills in an effort to fill critical competency gaps and reduce costs.

The self-assessments, which have so far been limited to IT workers, are critical, as the bureau revamps its internal processes to execute a more efficient 2020 census, said Nancy Potok, the agency's deputy director.

"This helps us really get a much better sense of what we have, and we're going to roll it out to some of our other core HR job position categories," she told Federal News Radio.

Nancy Potok, deputy director, Census Bureau

Those positions include survey and math statisticians.

Agency leadership has upgraded the way Census employees collect, analyze and process data. Potok said the competency assessments will help managers reinforce weak spots in the workforce.

"We have people here who have done censuses for maybe one, two, even three decades," she said. "And now we have to look forward and do something really non-traditional in a sense. So we want to make sure that we have the right skillsets here."

Census has saved nearly $2.3 billion on planned spending for the last two population counts. But Potok said fiscal pressure has forced the agency to find even more savings.

"We were given charge by the Congress, really, to try to find a way to do the 2020 census for less money on a per-household basis than what the 2010 census cost," she said. "So we've been looking at a lot of different ways that we can really take advantage of technology and the way society is changing, to try to save money."

Census upgrades employee development, training

The agency will use the skills-assessments to help managers and employees craft individual development plans, Potok said.

"I think what we'd like to do is see how we can train people here and see if we can get the skillsets that they need," she said. "Part of this is deploying people to the places where they can be best-utilized within the whole agency."

In another effort to improve workforce skills, the Census Bureau runs a corporate job rotation program where new employees move among the agency's components.

"And this not only gets people in positions where they can build the skills that they need, but it's also a way for us to start developing our future leadership-people who have kind of a broad view across the whole Census Bureau," she said.

But training and developing employees takes time. So the agency is using contractors to temporarily fill competency gaps, Potok said. Leaders might also offer new rounds of buyouts and early retirements to make room for new employees who already possess the skills necessary to modernize census operations. But the agency has not made any final decisions, she said.

Census revamps internal structure

The bureau's effort to modernize its workforce comes as the agency also is updating its internal structure. The effort began in 2011, when leaders decided to close six of 12 regional offices.

"We will be done [closing the offices] by Dec. 31," Potok said.

But the agency also is restructuring its headquarters operations.

The internal changes will help the bureau stay current with fast-changing data collection technology, said then-Census Director Robert Groves in July 2011.

He stepped down last month to become provost at Georgetown University.

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