John Thompson picked a hell of a day to quit.
The director of the U.S. Census Bureau since 2013 and a career Census bureaucrat, Thompson resigned on Tuesday, just as the news of FBI Director James Comey’s firing engulfed the nation. Given the timing, Thompson’s resignation will no doubt go overlooked. But the country can’t afford to underestimate the vacancy that his departure will leave.
Census watchers might have seen it coming. Costs for performing the decennial census have been spiraling upward for years, in part due to factors outside of anyone’s control. Any delay by the White House in replacing Thompson could exacerbate the problems the Census Bureau faces, compounding costs and potentially imperiling the 2020 Census.
Thompson’s resignation comes less than a week after he appeared before a House committee hearing on the 2020 Census. Ballooning costs were the main topic: The Census Bureau faces a $309 million cost overrun associated with a big modernization push for its technology.
The world has gotten more complicated since the first Census in 1790, which ran just six questions long. So has the work of tallying Americans. The Government Accountability Office named the decennial census to its 2017 High-Risk Report, an inglorious list of the worst potential cost overruns in government. The average cost for counting a household jumped from $16 in 1970 to $92 in 2010 (in constant dollars), according to the report. The reason? Americans no longer respond to snail-mail surveys, forcing Census officials to perform “non-response follow-up,” meaning individual checks by bureau enumerators.
Then there are security concerns. Given all the sensitive data the bureau collects on every single person living in the United States, the Census is a primo target for cyber-criminals. But the bureau lacks the in-house technical expertise necessary to most efficiently develop and ensure its Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP) program, the IT modernization drive that has gone so far above budget. GAO experts testified during the hearing that the eventual costs for CEDCaP may overrun its initial $656 million estimate by $400 million or more.
Thompson has previously pledged that the government will save $5 billion on the 2020 Census by streamlining systems. But during last week’s House hearing, he couldn’t guarantee this figure, or promise that the 2020 Census will come in under the costs for the 2010 Census—which, at $12.3 billion, was already the costliest in U.S. history. The IT costs alone are projected at $2 billion and may well rise, according to the GAO.* (The Census Bureau’s own estimate for the cost of the 2020 Census is due later this summer.)
Technology needs are just one of the mounting costs for the Census Bureau. But its requests for more funding have not been answered. In the budget deal that lawmakers struck last month, Congress gave the Census Bureau less than half of the $263 million increase that it requested for fiscal year 2017. When asked about the bureau’s urgent funding needs, Thompson declined to “get ahead of the President,” referring to the full 2018 budget proposal, which the White House may bring to Congress later this month.
Now it’s the President who needs to get ahead of the Census. Thompson’s departure comes at a sensitive time for the bureau, as it prepares for a full dress rehearsal of the decennial census in 2018 and the continued rollout of the CEDCaP system. Failing to prepare now could result in a poll that lacks accuracy or delivers a low response rate (like that of the Census of 1990). While President Donald Trump has a lot on his plate right now, he cannot let the Census director’s seat go unfilled.
Too much depends on the upcoming Census: Its population counts determine the apportionment of congressional seats for the House of Representatives, of course, but at a fundamental level, the Census is critical for understanding who we are as a country. Undercounting populations hinders our democracy, which is why Congress—through gritted teeth if need be—must fully fund the Census Bureau. The first order of business will be finding Thompson’s replacement, which is work that cannot wait.
*CORRECTION: The GAO estimates total IT costs for the Census to reach $2 billion, not $1 billion.