Jason E. Miczek/AP File Photo

Census Nominee Impresses Senators, Avoids Specifics on Disputed Survey

Bureau veteran Thompson hopes to use technology to reduce cost of count.

President Obama’s nominee to lead the Census Bureau 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,” speaking Tuesday to a receptive Senate panel.

John Thompson, a veteran of three decennial censuses at the Commerce Department who is currently president and CEO of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, steered clear of strong stands on the bureau’s annual American Community Survey that has drawn criticism from some Republican lawmakers as being too intrusive.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, hinted at smooth sailing for Thompson’s nomination, but challenged him to avoid the cost overruns and wasted spending on nonfunctioning hand-held computers that plagued the run-up to the 2010 decennial count.

“The cost of conducting the census has, on average, doubled since 1970,” Carper said. “If that growth continues, the estimate for the 2020 Census would exceed $25 billion. At a time when agencies across the federal government have been asked to do more with less, a $25 billion decennial census is unacceptable. If you are confirmed, Mr. Thompson, this committee will look to you to develop and implement initiatives to control costs while maintaining the quality and accuracy of the decennial count.”

Ranking Member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called it “ridiculous” that the last census count cost $50 per person, but said he planned to support Thompson, saying the last Census director -- Robert Groves, who left a year ago to become provost at Georgetown University -- “did a good job, and I have every confidence you will continue to improve on that. ” Coburn did press the nominee for a commitment to reduce reliance on cost-plus contracts.

“Democracy requires credible and timely census information,” Thompson testified, vowing to pursue nonpartisanship, protections of individual privacy and high-quality information. “Going forward, the country will rely more on institutions like the Census Bureau to help forge a data-driven future.”

Thompson cited his experience as a key player in the well-regarded 2000 census, “the first to use state of the art technology such as optical scanning and character recognition, and which was on schedule and within budget.” To make the 2020 census a turning point in low-cost efficiency, Thompson said he would plan innovations around encouraging more Internet-based citizen responses, reengineering the bureau’s infrastructure of field data operations, reducing in-person visits by census takers and curbing the need to physically visit large portions of the country to confirm addresses. The technology would include automated telephony, mobile devices and social media, he added.

"There are both risks and opportunities,” Thompson said. “Organizations must create a culture of adaptability. The goal is to leave a legacy of innovation,” he added, while committing to an “environment open and transparent to all stakeholders.”

Carper noted that Thompson, if confirmed, would fulfill the final three years of Groves’ term, leaving Thompson eligible -- under a 2012 law that provided for a five-year term for the director -- to stay in the job through 2020 if the president would like it.

The sole hint of controversy at the hearing came from discussion of the American Community Survey, which is valued by many for business research but which some Republicans have proposed eliminating as burdensome and intrusive. “ACS is tied to lack of confidence in government,” Coburn said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said her constituents had complained of being uncomfortable with the instrument’s questions, which number close to 100, she said, asking such things as whether someone in the household has a disability that brings difficulty in seeing or bathing and dressing themselves, or whether “your home has a sink and a faucet.”

Thompson said he does not “want to unduly burden the American public” and committed to protecting privacy, earning trust and making sure that all questions are ones “that have to be asked.” But he cautioned the lawmakers that he did not wish to “design a new survey before” assuming the job, after which he would “look forward to digging in with all stakeholders.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked him how he felt about fines of $100 to $5,000 imposed on citizens who decline to complete the ACS form. “I don’t think fining people is best way to encourage responses,” Thompson replied. “The Census Bureau is a data provider not an enforcement agency. But my understanding is that the fines are by statute and are enforced by the Justice Department.” He added that the annual ACS, which took the place of the old long form for the decennial census, is a “good test bed for trying new methodologies and new technology, an opportunity to do ground checks on private-sector [demographic] products.”

Thompson said the U.S. census could benefit from some techniques used in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, adding, however, that the U.S. population has greater diversity than those countries.

Thompson said the job of census director is “very exciting, at least to me. You work with other statistical agency leaders, and the new technology touches so many other agencies.”