Census must change to survive

The Census Bureau cannot afford to continue operating the way it does and unless the agency fundamentally changes the way it does business, it won't be able to fulfill its mission, the bureau's director said Thursday.

"Our costs are [expanding] at a rate that is exceeding inflation every year," said Census Director Robert M. Groves at a 2010 census advisory committee meeting. "This is unsustainable," he said.

Speaking at the bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md., Groves said Census is trying to be responsive to its mandate, but the world it is measuring is changing rapidly "in a way that challenges our old methods of measuring it."

As participation rates in the decennial census have declined, the historic response has been for bureau personnel to work harder to track down nonparticipants. But by doing that Census has inflated its costs even more, Groves said. Instead, the bureau needs to adapt new technologies and innovate its processes.

"We will either change or be changed; we cannot go on the way we are," he said. "If we keep doing what we're doing we're in trouble."

Groves said he encouraged Census employees nationwide to suggest ways to improve the bureau, but he was dismayed to find many supervisors brushed off the ideas. He then had employees send their ideas directly to him, and he promised to read them all.

Groves expected about 100 ideas, but received almost 700. Some were simple and could be implemented immediately, such as replacing some written communications with e-mail, or purchasing annual traffic passes in lieu of paying daily tolls when Census workers travel. Others were more complex and would require further analysis and potential investment.

The bureau's divisions are under pressure to cut their budgets by 1 percent every year, Graves noted, and said any ideas requiring investment must recoup enough savings to pay for themselves within three years.

"We're in [the] business of getting more efficient," he said. "We have teams working on this already."

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