Census nominee promises to 'fundamentally change' the decennial count

Wednesday - 7/10/2013, 5:28am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

John Thompson is promising to do something few other Census directors have successfully achieved. He told senators Tuesday that he will do the 2020 population count better, faster and, most importantly, cheaper.

Thompson, who spent 27 years at the bureau and the last 10 as the president and CEO of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to explain how and why he would fundamentally change the decennial census.

Thompson said a new approach using technology and statistics is one of the primary reasons he's excited about coming back to the Census.

John Thompson, president and chief executive officer, National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago

And committee members say he has no choice but to change the way the census is done. The combination of the budget problems the government is facing and the fact that the cost per household rose from $39 in 1990 to $96 per household in 2010 are driving the need to be cheaper, better and faster.

Lawmakers say in all, the government spent $13 billion to run the entire population count in 2010 and those costs likely will double by 2020.

Thompson said there are several steps he would like the bureau to take in the coming years.

"I really think that motivating self-response via the Internet is an incredibly important goal for the 2020 census," he said. "It will reduce the need to print hundreds of millions of questionnaires, to process those questionnaires, to have storage space for them, to mail them so that's very important."

Thompson also said it's just as important for the Census to reach citizens who don't have access to the Internet, but it's through the better use of technology that the bureau will find real cost savings.

He said the Census could take advantage of technology across four specific areas:

  • Using the Internet as the primary self-response option.

  • Taking advantage of technology and operations research methods to reengineer the field data collection operations — reducing both the infrastructure required to support these operations and the actual hours that enumerators spend collecting the data.

  • Making better use of federal records to further reduce the dependence on in- person visits for data collection.

  • Drawing on emerging geographic tools and datasets to eliminate the need to physically canvass large portions of the United States to prepare the address list.

Thompson has successfully implemented new technology at the Census Bureau before. He worked at the Census for 27 years, including serving as the associate director for the decennial censuses where he was the career executive responsible for all aspects of the 2000 count. During that time, he said the bureau was the first to employ then state-of-the-art technology for optical scanning and intelligent character recognition to capture information from questionnaires.

He said when it comes to technology and statistics, organizations need to constantly track emerging trends and advances, and determine how they can be used to generate new and more effective processes. Most importantly, organizations must create and foster a culture of adaptability and creativity.

Not repeating mistakes of the past

The Census Bureau struggled with technology and contracting in the 2010 count. It ended up canceling the broad use of handheld devices for non-response follow-up efforts at a cost of more than $500 million for the devices and another $2 billion to implement a pen-and-paper process.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, said he wanted assurances from Thompson that the Census Bureau will not use cost-plus type contracts unless absolutely necessary. Coburn said the use of these types of contracts are a major reason why the government struggles with IT programs.

Thompson said he's committed to using firm fixed price contracts as much as possible.

"The real key is you have to have in place detailed specifications. You have to have in place detailed performance metrics and a delivery schedule for getting the results. You have to have in place good management procedures that include formal change control processes," he said. "If I'm confirmed, I really will work toward defining the level of specifications that will maximize the use of fixed price contracts."

Another way Thompson said he would ensure the best technology and processes are in place for the 2020 count is by testing them through the American Community Survey (ACS). The Census uses the ACS to conduct ongoing surveys to gather data on everything from age to race to health insurance to disabilities.

Dress rehearsal

Thompson said he would like to use the American Community Survey as a sort of dress rehearsal for the 2020.

"The ACS now is starting to offer the Internet as a response option. To learn how to motivate response by the Internet through the ACS, there's a wide body of research going on in the public and private sector right now," he said. "The ACS certainly offers a good test bed for trying new methodologies, bringing in research from outside the government, researchers to work with the Census Bureau to put in place the Internet. Another opportunity the ACS offers is the ability to try out new technology on a limited basis to see how it works, to understand the mechanics of it and to understand the human factors associated with introducing it."

Thompson added the ACS also lets Census workers do on the ground checks and look at private sector products and compare them to the bureau's to better understand the differences.

Broad support

Senators on both sides of the aisle were pleased with Thompson's experience and answers. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the committee, and Coburn said they support his nomination.

Thompson would replace Robert Groves, who served as Census director for more than three years and became provost at Georgetown University last September.

Thompson would be the first Census director confirmed by the Senate under the new rules passed in 2012 that created a five-year term for the position.

His term would end Dec. 31, 2016, and he would be eligible to be nominated and confirmed for two more five-year terms.

"The provision that was signed into law also sets forth several qualifications for future Census director nominees," Carper said. "The law now requires nominees have a demonstrated ability to manage large organizations, experience in collection, analysis and use of statistical data. I'm pleased that the president has nominated someone who I believe meets these requirements."

Carper didn't say when the committee would vote on Thompson's nomination.

RELATED STORIES:

Groves envisions future censuses to be cheaper, more mobile

Mobile device pilots giving Census a look into the future

Census to offer Internet option in gov't surveys