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Census Director Steven Dillingham last year in South Carolina

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Statisticians hail early departure of U.S. Census director

*Editor’s note: Former Census Director Steven Dillingham offers his reaction in a letter at the end of this story.

The director of the U.S. Census Bureau has resigned, almost 1 year before the end of his term and less than 1 week after an internal agency watchdog questioned his ability to maintain the quality of data released from the just-completed 2020 census. Leaders of the U.S. statistical community are glad to see Steven Dillingham go, saying his actions had undermined the integrity of an agency that produces some of the nation’s most important social science data.

Dillingham spent a tumultuous 2 years fending off assaults on the decennial head count by President Donald Trump and his appointees, including a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and a presidential order to exclude undocumented residents from the final tally used to decide how many seats each state gets in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives. Researchers had initially hoped Dillingham, a lawyer who has a doctorate in political science and had overseen statistical operations in three previous administrations, would be able to withstand those attacks.

But his handling of a last-ditch push to release data on undocumented residents before Trump left office drew heated criticism from demographers, civil rights organizations, and influential Democrats in Congress. And census specialists are skeptical of explanations that Dillingham offered for his actions in a lengthy exit statement he issued yesterday. (It also announces his retirement, effective tomorrow.)

The final chapter of Dillingham’s tenure began with a 12 January letter that Peggy Gustafson, inspector general of the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, sent to Dillingham. Census employees had told Gustafson they had received a memo setting a 15 January deadline for delivering the data on undocumented residents to White House officials.

Those data are controversial because they would have altered the apportionment numbers produced by the regular census, which is required to count everyone living in the country regardless of their legal status. Critics of the plan say Trump was trying to lessen the political representation of some states and boost the clout of Republican-leaning states. The employees called the deadline “statistically indefensible,” Gustafson wrote, and said it would lead to the release of “incomplete data [that] could be misinterpreted, misused, or otherwise tarnish the Bureau’s reputation.”

Dillingham wrote back to Gustafson the next day, saying he had told Census employees to stop the effort. The president’s order was unprecedented and posed a huge challenge: Census officials would have needed to define the targeted population, determine how many of those undocumented residents had filled out the 2020 census by matching their profiles to persons in the database, and then remove them from the census tally before it was passed along for apportionment. Census officials would also need to identify and exclude undocumented residents who answered the 2020 census but did not appear in other government records.

In his blog post yesterday, Dillingham said the whistleblowers’ concerns “appear to be misunderstandings” of how the data would be generated and reviewed before it was given to the president. The memo, he added, came not from him, but from “one or two Administration appointees assigned to the Census Bureau.” He downplayed the significance of the data, calling them “a single column of state numbers.” And he said career employees had told him “the data review and any potential publication of summary numbers would comply” with the agency’s usual high standards.

Census advocates say Dillingham’s explanations aren’t persuasive. “He’s trying to weasel out of any responsibility for running the agency,” says Robert Santos, president of the American Statistical Association. “And in the meantime, he’s throwing the career employees under the bus.”

Former Census Director John Thompson, a holdover from former President Barack Obama’s administration who was forced out a few months after Trump took office, disagrees with Dillingham’s assertion that career staff were confused about the memo’s intent. “He says that they thought they were being told to ignore data quality standards,” Thompson says about his successor. “But that just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Both men also criticize Dillingham for ceding too much authority to two high-ranking political appointees—Nathaniel Cogley and Benjamin Overholt—in furthering the president’s goal of obtaining the revised count before he left office. (Cogley, deputy director for policy, and Overholt, deputy director for data, left the agency on 19 January.) 

President-elect Joe Biden will now have an opportunity to appoint a new leader of the agency. In the interim, it will be run by Ron Jarmin, a longtime civil servant and deputy director who played the same role before Dillingham arrived in January 2019. The census director serves a 5-year term, starting in years ending in 2 or 7. That template is intended to minimize disruption to the agency’s 10-year planning cycle that culminates in Census Day in April of every year ending in zero.

Santos says he expects the next director to uphold the principles of “integrity and scientific rigor” at the nation’s largest statistical agency. And, he adds, “Hopefully, there will also be more transparency.”

*Correction, 16 February, 10:35 a.m.: This article has been revised to correctly identify Benjamin Overholt, one of the unnamed political appointees referenced in the inspector general’s memo, and his title. 

doi:10.1126/science.abg6506

Jeffrey Mervis

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Responses

I would like to correct serious inaccuracies contained in Jeffrey Mervis’ Science magazine article published on January 19, 2021. The article incorrectly describes topics and actions that occurred in the days prior to my retirement from the Census Bureau. The topics stemmed from questions presented by the Inspector General regarding concerns associated with a limited data review request communicated through my career Deputy Director to several analysts.

The data being reviewed was not 2020 Census data for possible use in the upcoming apportionment count. The review was of administrative data collected pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 13880 issued in July 2019 for purposes of generating better statistics for research and policy. More specifically, the data review request pertained to statistics on non-citizens with legal (not undocumented) status.  It was agreed by senior career management that data quality standards would apply. The release of statistics on the number of legal non-citizens would need to be consistent with the National Academies National Research Council’s Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency accepted throughout the statistical community. Within a few days, as expected, the data was determined not to be ready for use or release.

This article and many others conflated the requested administrative data review of persons with legal status for research purposes with the controversial Presidential Memorandum issued on July 21, 2020, instructing the Census Bureau to examine options for possibly excluding undocumented non-citizens from 2020 Census apportionment data to be presented to Congress. The apportionment data options, if attempted, would have been unprecedented and undoubtedly would have been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In sum, there was no intent to issue or rush faulty data regarding undocumented non-citizens, nor could the requested statistics have been used for apportionment. Had the data met established quality standards, it may have been useful in making population estimates. As Director, I was not consulted prior to the issuance of the research directive or the subsequent apportionment directive. Regarding new apportionment options, I did not take a public stance on the matter except to confirm that the agency would abide by a controlling court decision. On its first day, the Biden Administration issued an executive order reversing course on these initiatives.

I invite the scientific community to devote attention and talents to promising reforms, such as commencing the census a year earlier so that data collection and processing are completed prior to a cycle of heated and divisive electoral politics that corrode public trust. The constitutionally required and important civic responsibility of conducting a complete and accurate decennial census deserves better.
Steven Dillingham, Ph.D.   

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