Census Bureau director nominee Robert Santos testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday.

Census Bureau director nominee Robert Santos testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday. Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Biden’s Census Nominee Pledges to Help Agency, Employees Recover From Tumultuous 2020

Director-designate says bureau suffered due to Trump's interference and pandemic's disruption.

President Biden’s pick to lead the Census Bureau on Thursday vowed to take the agency in a new direction, promising to empower and support its career employees after the Trump administration stirred controversy for meddling in its affairs. 

The combined disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and volatile decision-making by Trump officials harmed the Census Bureau's workforce, its Director-designate Robert Santos told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a confirmation hearing. Santos said morale had plummeted at the bureau, but he vowed to help it recover.  

“I highly value the career staff at the Census Bureau,” Santos said. “They represent some of the best scientists in the country, some of the best operations people in the country.”

The Trump administration’s efforts to withhold non-citizens from the decennial count and wrap up operations earlier than previously planned caused frequent push-and-pull in the operational direction for the agency. As the pandemic took hold, employees had to adjust long-planned processes on the fly and constantly adjust to various lawsuits and top-down mandates. The administration initially extended the timeline for delivering census results before shortening it, with litigation eventually reaching the Supreme Court. The approach caused widespread confusion on the ground and created significant logistical challenges. Census delivered apportionment data in April, but is still working to process the necessary information for state-level redistricting. 

“The Census Bureau and its workforce have faced many challenges in recent years, but particularly in 2020 including planning and executing significant adjustments to the 2020 census in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as a result of attempted political influence in its operations,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the governmental affairs committee.

Santos said he would hold listening sessions and launch other efforts to create a better work environment for Census employees, promising to work with senior career staff and human resources to develop various “personnel tools” to support the workforce. 

“It’s been harrowing and these staff deserve to be recognized for what they did and rewarded for it,” Santos said. “There are a lot of morale issues. We know that.” 

Santos said he would work to address the “root causes of job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction.” He promised to offer bonuses where appropriate, but said it is often “more rewarding” to provide additional research paths for employees or to expand telework options. 

Santos declined to commit to meeting an Aug. 16 deadline to deliver redistricting data that Census reached over the course of recent litigation, though the bureau has recently said it is on track to complete its work by that time. 

“I do not have the information to make a commitment, and it would be irresponsible,” Santos said. He added, however, that he was confident Census would meet the deadline. 

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reminded Santos that time was of the essence. 

“If we don’t have it, we can’t do this redistricting,” Portman said. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, whose department includes the bureau, earlier this year praised Census’ “dedicated civil servants” who overcame hurdles to “conduct a complete and accurate census count.” She noted that despite the setbacks and controversies, the statisticians at the bureau ensured all the data were delivered without issue. 

“I trust these experts and I’m confident in this work,” Raimondo said.