Census Bureau Director John Thompson

Census Bureau Director John Thompson Flickr user OversightandReform

Census Chief Resigns Amid Ongoing Political Crossfire

Thompson had promised major technological innovations.

After just under four years as Census Bureau director, John Thompson on Tuesday announced his retirement effective June 30—right in the middle of a battle in Congress over funding for the 2020 big count.

“My tenure at the Census Bureau has been a richly rewarding capstone to my federal career,” Thompson said in a statement. “As I pursue opportunities in the private sector, please be assured that I will continue to be supportive of the administration’s priority to have a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thompson’s “experience will be greatly missed.”

Thompson, who had worked at Census from 1975-2002, was nominated by President Obama in 2013 when he was director of the University of Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center, where he participated on advisory panels on the design of the 2010 census.

At his July 2013 Senate confirmation hearing, he promised to use innovative technology and create a “new census design that will fundamentally change the way the census is done in the United States.”

During his tenure, some Republicans criticized the bureau’s American Community Survey on economics as burdensome and intrusive. A consultants’ report warned that the high-tech census tools were vulnerable to online fraud, and earlier this year, the bureau had to back off original reports that it was adding a new gender-identity question to the census.

But the loudest controversies during Thompson’s time have revolved around funding levels for the 2020 count. As noted by the nonprofit Census Project -- a coalition of business, government, civil rights and academics advocating for a strong census -- Republicans on the appropriations panels are worried about cost overruns in the coming decennial census. At a May 3 hearing, Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, blasted Thompson for announcing that the projected cost for the 2020 count rose by more than $300 million because of underpricing of information technology.

The Census Project asserted that the recently approved fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill funds Census at “a historically low appropriation at this point in decade cycle” and argued that the fiscal 2018 budget now under discussion is “the last, best chance” to get things right for 2020.

“Director Thompson was always in the crosshairs with the Congress demanding a same-price census as last time but with a 10-15 percent increase in population,” Census Project spokesman Phil Sparks told Government Executive. “It’s difficult to thread the eye of a needle.”

(Image via Flickr user OversightandReform)