Reminder that people are what really count at Census

Friday - 4/3/2009, 12:35pm EDT

Martha Farnsworth Riche

Dealing with a braindrain fallout may be the biggest obstacle for the 2010 census and beyond.

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

President Obama choice of Robert Groves to be the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau is not without controversy.

As the partisan bickering heads towards a peak, former director Martha Farnsworth Riche tells FederalNewsRadio what she would make her first order of business.

I'll tell you what I would make my priority. This thing (the 2010 census) is locked in stone, but we can do it well or we can do it better than well and that's really going to depend on the people who are there. The morale at the Census Bureau, I am told, is not very high because there's been a lot of fighting and a lot of things that we don't have time to go into here, but I think for your audience the really significant thing is that because of the lack of federal hiring for almost 20 years, we lost a whole cohort of people who would have been trained and on a track to get into senior positions.

Farnsworth Riche says it's not as though the halls are bare at the Bureau, but options are limited.

So what happened after the 2000 census is people who had conducted three, four and even five censuses walked out the door with their retirement... What that meant is there was no one in the wings ready to replace them. People had to be moved up really, really fast. So what you have is a lot of inexperienced people in senior positions, and I'm not saying that they are not knowledgeable and they don't work hard - they are. They're very professional, but you kind of can't replace that experience. There's going to need to be real leadership so the folks at the Census Bureau put everything they've got into doing the best census they can and are not looking over their shoulder at the politicians all the time.

Aside from the immediate concern of the looming census, Farnsworth Riche says Groves will be confronted by issues more than a decade away.

They've already started planning the 2020 census. They started that probably a year ago, or maybe even longer. You really can spend a lot of time. The first five years or so, you spend researching. They'll do a lot of analysis of what works and doesn't work in this census. You'll test things, you'll research, but you better have your plan by, say, 2014 or 2015, and then you need the resources from Congress and from the Department of Commerce... and not rob Peter to pay Paul, but they always do. And the result is that everybody gets really nervous at the end. All these people that didn't pay any attention, and I tried so hard to point out to them over and over again how you really, if you spend money in mid-decade, you save money when the census comes, but that falls on deaf ears.

Dr. Martha Farnsworth Riche served as director of the U.S. Census Bureau between 1994 and 1998.

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On the Web:

Farnsworth Riche Associates - farnsworthriche.com

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