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Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau.

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Census Bureau puts new team in charge of 2020 U.S. count

The head of the 2020 U.S. census has been removed, a step that may signal an end to the aggressive attempt by former Census Bureau Director John Thompson to follow a congressional directive to both save money and modernize the decennial U.S. headcount.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided Congress with a new cost estimate for the 2020 census that was $3.3 billion higher than Thompson’s 2015 estimate. Ross said Thompson had been “overly optimistic” in calculating the savings from new technologies and had misjudged the difficulty of having them ready by Census Day on 1 April 2020.

Congress had told Thompson to carry out the next census without exceeding the $12.1 billion spent in 2010. In response, Thompson drew up a plan to achieve $5.2 billion in savings from various upgrades, including the first-ever use of the internet to answer the 10 questions on the census. But Congress has repeatedly given the agency less money than it needed to test and implement the improvements.

Thompson announced his retirement in May, only a few months after his deputy, Nancy Potok, had moved to the White House to become chief statistician at the Office of Management and Budget. Thompson left on 30 June, and Ross promoted two Census veterans, Ron Jarmin and Enrique Lamas, to fill the vacancies.

Today, Jarmin sent a memo to staff announcing that he was moving Lisa Blumerman, associate director for decennial programs, “into a new role” aimed at making better use of existing government records in carrying out the agency’s various surveys and studies. Her replacement as head of the 2020 census is Albert Fontenot, a former top regional official during the 2010 census who had recently returned as her top aide. James Treat, a 30-year veteran of the Census Bureau, is being promoted to be Fontenot’s deputy.

“With the 2018 Census End-to-End Test underway and the 2020 Census taking place just over 2 years from now, the Census Bureau must begin to shift its focus from planning and research toward implementation,” according to a statement from Jarmin’s office. “We are making management changes to reflect this new phase of the census and to ensure a complete and accurate count.”

Blumerman is a career Census official whom Thompson promoted in 2015. “She is a really capable and good person, and a good manager, but so is Al,” he says. “I think the world of both of them.” Thompson says he believes that Jarmin is simply “trying to assemble the best possible team for the 2020 census.”

Jarmin is heading the Census Bureau on an acting basis while Ross hunts for a permanent replacement for the position, which requires Senate confirmation. There is speculation that Jarmin could get the job if he can show Ross the agency has softened Thompson’s approach and adopted what one census watcher calls a “blended model” for the 2020 census that combines time-tested approaches with some new wrinkles. Ross’s new estimate of $15.6 billion appears to be an admission that costs will go up, congressional wishes notwithstanding.