2010 census forms were mailed to more than 120 million households.

2010 census forms were mailed to more than 120 million households. U.S. Census Bureau file photo

Seven Ex-Census Chiefs Warn Against Budget Cuts

Bureau is running out of time for designing, planning and selecting technology for the 2020 count.

With Congress gearing up for a December lame-duck session to finalize fiscal 2015 spending, seven former Census directors have written appropriations chiefs warning that the quality and cost-effectiveness of the 2020 count depends on “ramping up” funding now.

The bureau is running out of time to select a census design, test operational methods and develop information technology systems for collecting data and managing field activities, wrote the directors, whose tenure spans four decennial censuses.

“2015 is a pivotal year for decisions that will determine the efficacy of promising, but complex, new initiatives, such as offering multiple response modes, reforming and streamlining field management and using administrative records and other data sources to update the address list and reduce the number of costly door-to-door visits,” they wrote. “These new initiatives show great promise, but they need to be tested thoroughly and in census-like environments to confirm their efficacy.”

The House version of the Commerce Department appropriation funded Census at 20 percent below President Obama’s request for a total of $1.1 billion. The Senate version would cut funding by 7 percent over the previous year, and the continuing resolution that expires in December replicated fiscal 2014 funding levels.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., cited the need to reduce the deficit and prioritize funding for “law enforcement, national security, public safety initiatives, and programs with economic benefit to the nation.” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., expressed some skepticism toward Obama’s requested funding boost. “Controlling costs for the 2020 Census is a top oversight concern for the inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and the Appropriations Committee,” she said in April. “I want to know what is being done to make the 2020 Census less expensive than the 2010 Census and to prevent techno-boondoggles that caused 2010 Census costs to skyrocket.”

In this week’s letter, the Census directors noted that in addition to developing new IT systems, the bureau needs to “evaluate new questionnaire wording, and assess the accuracy of new counting methods that could save the taxpayer billions of dollars. Cyber-security and privacy concerns are paramount for a modern census that must measure a culturally and linguistically diverse population.”

And “while many government agencies can, no doubt, delay decision-points and new initiatives if necessary, the Census Bureau is in a unique position,” the directors said, citing the bureau’s constitutional obligations and legal deadlines to provide states with data for redistricting. “Slippage in the planning schedule, which already has endured numerous delays due to previous funding shortfalls, has a domino effect.”

The past directors include Vincent P. Barabba, Bruce Chapman, Barbara Everitt, Martha Farnsworth Riche, Kenneth Prewitt, Steven Murdock and the most recent predecessor to incumbent John Thompson, Robert Groves.