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John Thompson will leave the Census Bureau on 30 June.

U.S. Census Bureau

Departure of U.S. Census director threatens 2020 count

John Thompson is stepping down next month as director of the U.S. Census Bureau. His announcement today comes less than 1 week after a congressional spending panel grilled him about mounting problems facing the agency in preparing for the 2020 decennial census. And Thompson’s pending retirement is weighing heavily on the U.S. statistical community.

Thompson is leaving halfway through a 1-year extension of a term that expired last December. His departure will create what a 2012 law was expressly designed to avoid—a leadership vacuum during a crucial time in the 10-year life cycle of the census, the nation’s largest civilian undertaking. The immediate concern is who the Trump administration will appoint, and how soon it will act.

“The key is to act expeditiously,” says Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy organization. “The normal length of time to fill a vacancy [with a nomination] is 6 months, but the Census Bureau doesn’t have the luxury of time.”

Ken Prewitt, who led the agency from 1998 to 2001, worries that a long delay in naming a well-qualified replacement for Thompson could be the first step of a long, steep decline in the quality of the federal statistic system, which spans 13 agencies. “That system is fragile, and it wouldn’t take much to damage it severely,” says Prewitt, a professor of social affairs at Columbia University. “My real fear is that they don’t care enough to do a good job with the 2020 census. And then after doing a bad job, they decide to let the private sector take over.”

A more modern census

A former 27-year veteran of the agency, Thompson returned as director in August 2013 after leading NORC, a public opinion research firm based in Chicago, Illinois. He immediately drew up plans to modernize the 2020 census in a way that would also allow it to meet a congressional mandate to hold the 2020 census to no more than the $12.5 billion cost of the 2010 enumeration.

Thompson has said repeatedly those changes will save an estimated $5 billion. But that estimate has begun to look shaky for reasons within and outside his control.

The cost of a new tracking system being developed for the next census is almost twice its initial half-a-billion-dollar budget, Thompson said last week before the commerce, justice, and science appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives. And that was just the first of several pieces of bad news at the 3 May hearing. Officials from the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, told legislators they feared a billion-dollar overrun in the agency’s overall IT programs, an essential element in mounting a successful census. Even more disconcerting, they said, were the agency’s repeated delays in updating cost estimates made in 2015.

Thompson’s rare appearance before the House spending panel underscored the agency’s tenuous budget situation. The Census Bureau’s budget historically spikes in the 2 to 3 years before the next census. But its prospects of getting such a large hike this time around are bleak. A final spending bill enacted last week provided less than half its requested $263 million increase for 2017. And President Donald Trump has said he’ll ask for essentially a flat budget in 2018.

Without a financial rampup, however, census officials won’t be able to vet all the new systems planned for 2020. And any stumbles will likely cost the government a lot more money to fix down the road.

Who’s next?

Thompson says he timed his departure to give his boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and the White House “sufficient time to put in the proper leadership to guide the Census Bureau through the 2017 Economic Census, the 2020 Census and beyond.” But media reports say Ross was unhappy with Thompson’s performance at last week’s hearing and shared his displeasure with the director.

Prewitt speculates that a Trump appointee might have an easier time convincing a Republican-led Congress to allocate the additional money needed to ensure that the 2020 census is successful. “If you see your budget cut in 2017 and think you’re not going to do any better in 2018,” Prewitt says, “you might decide that the Bureau would be better off with somebody new.”

The Census director has traditionally been a longtime agency official or a well-respected academic. Census watchers don’t think an insider will get the job. “Right now they don’t have a strong bench,” says Smith, noting that the agency’s deputy director, Nancy Potok, was recently named chief statistician at the White House Office of Management and Budget and that her position is vacant.

That leaves someone from the community as the most likely choice. “It’s a large organization, but it’s fundamentally a scientific agency,” says Ronald Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association based in Alexandria, Virginia. “So the new director needs to be someone with strong management and scientific skills.”

The new director also needs to command respect, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former House staffer director for the census panel and now a census consultant in Connecticut. “Maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the process will determine, to a large degree, faith in the results,” she says. “It is vital that the next director not be viewed as partisan or lacking an appreciation for the value of objective, reliable statistics to inform decision-making.”