John Thompson was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013 and had worked there for 27 years before running it. So the announcement in May that he was resigning — smack in the middle of a one-year term extension — came as a surprise to many, including census watchers.
It leaves the bureau without a leader in the midst of feverish preparations for the 2020 count. There has been much hand-wringing since, amid worries that a leadership vacuum could hinder the once-a-decade effort to count how many people there are in this country, who they are and where they come from.
The 2020 count is a BIG DEAL. There are consequences for all Americans, but especially for the most vulnerable if it's not done right. Civil rights organizations worry that if you undercount the poor or racial and ethnic minorities (which has happened in the past) that may affect how federal money is spent on everything from education to transportation, not to mention how it could alter political representation.
John Thompson came to NPR to talk with Code Switch about his work and the upcoming count, before heading off to Hawaii's Big Island for some post-resignation R&R. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
In your 2013 Senate confirmation hearing, you said you wanted to produce information that has an important social good and that's why you went to work at the Census Bureau more than 30 years ago. Could elaborate on that for us? I'm assuming you're feeling introspective now that you're leaving.
I've had the good fortune to always have been involved in some kind of activity that was producing information that had an important social impact. It's been great to work with people that really value producing high-quality information for important purposes.
Can you lay out all the ways in which census information informs American life?
Sure. The first use is to reapportion the Congress of the United States. That produces 50 numbers which are used to reapportion the Congress every 10 years. The next use is to produce small area data that is used to draw congressional districts after the reapportionment. And the purpose of the data is to draw districts that are fair and representative of the United States. Another important use of the census data is that the civil rights enforcement agencies use it to ensure fair housing and fair hiring at local levels. And, then, the American Community Survey, which is part of the decennial census, is used for a number of purposes, including allocating over $400 billion in federal funding.
When it comes to race and race relations in this country, can you point to some examples of how the information collected by the census has really led to social change?
Going back to the Civil Rights Act, and 'one person one vote', the census data are used to ensure there's fair representation in the United States, and I think that that is really an important concept in our country.
Right, this fact that there can't really be equal representation if we don't have an accurate count of the people who need that representation. People are nervous that your departure is leaving a leadership vacuum at a very critical time. Are you worried?
I am not worried about that.
(laughs) No, the Census is much more than the director. The Census only really has three political positions: the director, the associate director for communications and the head of governmental relations and congressional affairs. Beyond that, everything else is a career position. When I was at the Census my first time, I was a career executive and I was in charge of all aspects of the 2000 census, in terms of allocating resources and making sure it had an accurate count. We had a wonderful director named Ken Prewitt, and his job was to support me and my team and deal with the political issues that surround the census. The people who are going to conduct the census are career people, and they are committed to providing a very, very accurate census.
You brought up the political issues that surround the census. You resigned at a critical juncture, 2 1/2 years before the decennial census.
Can you say why you left?
Sure. The census director position is a term position. It's a five-year term. The term ended on Dec. 31, 2016, and the next term will end in 2021. However, the law says that the current census director can stay for up to a year while a new director is being sought. Last Jan. 20, there was hardly anybody left in the government, so I was able to provide a period of stability and transition for the Census Bureau as they were moving forward toward the 2020 census. And then we had reached a point where I just could not do any more. I had done all I could do and I could not help the bureau anymore and so at that point it seemed like the right thing to do was to announce my retirement.
What do you mean you couldn't do anymore?
I had done everything I could do as a political appointee at the Census Bureau; I really couldn't do any more.
People treated your resignation with alarm, including your former boss, Ken Prewitt, who has been quoted multiple times.
I'm not nervous about this. If I was nervous, I would not have left the Census Bureau. I think one thing that's very telling is that we announced that there would be an acting director, he's a career person, and they also announced that there would be an acting deputy director who is also a career person at Census. Which indicates the great confidence the Department of Commerce has in the career staff at the bureau.
But, eventually President Trump has to nominate someone who has to go through this long confirmation process ...
Exactly, and I hope that that happens as expeditiously as possible.
The Government Accountability Office listed the census as a high-risk agency, concerned with its "ability to conduct a cost-effective enumeration."
When you have a paper-and-pencil operation and you have a country like the United States, which grows more and more diverse, living situations are more diverse [and] the only way you can deal with that, with paper and pencil, is by throwing more bodies at it. That is one of the reasons that the costs of the census have been growing so exponentially over the years — one of the main reasons. So, for this census, they're doing some different things, which are really exciting to me. One of them is they're offering the Internet as a self-response option for the first time. They realize that there are people who don't have access to the Internet. So, they'll offer a phone number. The Census has been doing this since 2013, and it's been going very well. And when you have mobile connectivity, you can optimize the work. You know where your people are, you can provide their supervisors real-time alerts about what they're doing. You can build in efficiencies. But, with new automated systems, there are also more risks. The Census Bureau has been working on this very, very hard. In 2018, they're going to run an end-to-end test, which will prove out how all the systems will work together, two years in advance of the census.
Does using mobile technology help you get to certain demographics that are harder to get to by pencil and paper?
The big thing about the accuracy of the census, and this is something that was started in the 2000 census, [is] a two-pronged approach. Paid advertising to get the word out. And also something called "partnership." That is, they hire a number of individuals they call partnership specialists and their job, specifically, is to work with local governments and local community leaders to give them the materials and information they need that's tailored to their situation. So that they can explain to people, in local voices: One, why it's important to respond to the census, and, two, that the information that comes to the census is confidential and it's not given to anyone else. And, that's really what you have to overcome, whether you're using a smartphone or pencil and paper.
It's trust, you're developing trust. And, I've heard you say that you have to have the public's trust in order for the census to work. There are certain communities that are really anxious right now. We've talked on Code Switch about activists who've worked to get people with Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds counted. And there's now some fear over how that information will be used if they are, finally, counted. What is your message to residents who might be anxious about participating in 2020?
My message would be that it's incredibly important to be counted because your community needs you to be represented in order to get your fair share of resources in this country and to have your fair voice in what goes on. And the laws under which the Census Bureau operates provide protections. The Census Bureau does not share information with any law enforcement agency, the Census Bureau is exempt from the Patriot Act.
I don't think I would have much success saying this to certain communities that I don't look like I represent. That's why we hire a lot of people to go out and work with the communities. They had over 250,000 organizations or partners in the last census. There are big organizations like the NAACP and [the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] and very small organizations like a local church.
Is that in danger because Congress wants to keep the money reined in and so much of it is being spent to automate and update technology?
Well, I think the next two years in the budget cycle are going to be very, very important. Because that's when these activities have to happen. That's when the money has to go out to mount this effort for advertising and putting the boots on the ground to get the word out. They're formulating the FY 19 budget right now ... and it will be something to watch. I'll be watching it with great interest.
There's been a lot of attention being paid to redistricting right now. There's a big gerrymandering case that's on the Supreme Court docket. Can you talk about the stakes when it comes to the 2020 census and how that may impact the voting power of communities of color?
I can talk, somewhat. You have to understand, the Census Bureau and the director of the Census Bureau are not experts at redistricting. But we are experts at providing the accurate data that's needed for redistricting. You have to have equal representation in the data that we produce, so that it can be used to demonstrate that the way districts are drawn is, in fact, representative of the population so that people who enforce voting rights have the information at their disposal to take action if they find that there has been improper districting. It's available for anyone to use and anyone to analyze. Anyone who wants to take that data and say, 'was this district drawn fairly, or not?' can have access to that data, for free.
If the data is collected accurately ...
That's exactly right. That's the most important thing. To collect the data as accurately as possible.