2014: Now is the Time for Change

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Written by John H. Thompson

 As I begin my first calendar year as director, I am laying out priorities and looking at what is on the horizon for 2014. This is a big year for us, with key milestones in planning for the 2020 Census, releasing the first statistics from the 2012 Economic Census and continuing to release statistics that measure how the nation’s population and economy are changing. I am eager to share our plans with you.

 I have had the privilege of serving as Census Bureau director for about six months now, and it has been a welcome return to the place where I spent a large part of my career. Prior to coming back to the Census Bureau, I spent 11 years at the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

 My background gives me both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective on the Census Bureau, which helps guide my decisions for an agency in transition. Now is the time to research and make changes in the way we conduct our surveys and the next census in 2020. It is also imperative to improve how we deliver America’s statistics back to taxpayers and businesses.

 While we continue to produce the quality statistics America relies upon for starting or growing a business and making informed decisions, we are also transforming the way we process surveys and censuses to make them more cost effective and timely. We know that many of you are looking to us to produce statistics more quickly. We must also produce them at a lower cost.

 As we plan for the 2020 Census, we are focusing on four areas of exploration: providing multiple ways for response (including online), re-engineering our field operations and using data already available to reduce the burden on respondents. In addition, we are looking at using information already available in the geo-spatial world for use in our address canvassing operations.

 Through the smart use of technology and existing government data sources, we are aiming for a 2020 Census that will provide substantial taxpayer savings while maintaining the highest quality and accuracy standards. In the coming months, I will blog more about our research and testing, including our 2014 test, beginning in April.

This year, we will deliver the first statistics from the 2012 Economic Census, which are essential to understanding the competitiveness of U.S. business and industry and conducting sound public and private sector planning. The economic census takes place every five years and is the most authoritative and comprehensive source of information about U.S. businesses from the national to the local level.

The Economic Census provides statistics that allow businesses, investors, policy makers, trade associations, chambers of commerce and others to answer vital questions, plan and grow. This spring, we will release the advance report from the Economic Census with preliminary totals for economic sectors. Additional reports will be released throughout the year and through 2016.

 We are also continuing to incorporate the valuable feedback from you and all of our stakeholders into making our statistics easier to access and improving our processes. My predecessors, including Dr. Robert Groves, have put in place a good framework and environment to allow for this kind of valuable collaboration and consultation with our stakeholders and other outside experts. I am committed to building on this strong foundation.

As part of our overall digital transformation, we have listened to your feedback, and we are redesigning our website to meet our centuries-old mission of making the statistics that define our growing, changing nation more accessible than ever before. In the coming weeks, you will see changes to our site. Soon, you will be able to preview a beta site, which will include improved thematic navigation. It will launch later this spring.

 I will continue posting updates in the weeks and months ahead and I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Posted in About the Agency, Digital Transformation, Economy, Measuring America | 7 Comments

Farewell from Tom Mesenbourg

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Written by: Tom Mesenbourg

August 1, 2013 was a very special day for me. The retirement ceremony was extremely touching to both myself and my family. The speakers – Nancy Potok, Bob Groves, Steve Murdock, Johnny Zuagar, Mark Doms, Bill Bostic and Steve Landefeld were all fantastic, and I will always treasure your friendship. I also want to thank all the staff and visitors who I was able to greet and thank for their contributions. It was great fun to reconnect with folks who have retired, meet some employees who have only been at the Census Bureau a week or two, as well as friends from the federal statistical community. I was so happy Claire Kincannon, her daughter, Alexandra, and their grandchildren were able to attend.

In my last blog as Acting Director of the Census Bureau, I wanted to share my farewell remarks. August 2, 2013, is my last day at the Census Bureau and the timing could not be more perfect – John Thompson was confirmed by the Senate on August 1 as the new Census Bureau Director. I leave pleased that the Census Bureau has a leader who knows the organization, the challenges we face, and is committed to making the Census Bureau an even more effective organization.

Farewell Remarks

August 1, 2013

First, let me start by thanking all of the speakers for their kind words. I respect each and every one of them and I am thankful for their support, friendship, the opportunities they provided me, and their enduring contributions to the Census Bureau.

I also want to thank my wonderful wife, Faith, my daughters, Alina and Erika, my son-in-law, Jamey, Erika’s beau, Hector Velez and, of course, my two grandchildren – Trey and Alexandra Graydon. The sacrifices, patience, and unwavering support my family provided me over the past four decades contributed greatly to any success I may have had. I have to be honest and admit I never quite got the work and life balance thing quite right. But you make choices, you live with them, and fortunately for me my family always supported those choices.

I also want to thank all of the Census Bureau employees that I have had the honor to work with over the last four decades, all of my colleagues and friends in the federal statistical community, and all the census data users, stakeholders, associations and organizations that have helped make the Census Bureau a better organization.

It seems difficult to believe that 41 years ago, Roger Bugenhagen called me at Penn State and told me about all the interesting things that were going on in the Economic Surveys Division and asked me to join the Census Bureau. Since I had no other job offers, I, of course, accepted and started work in October 1972.

I have been fortunate to work with federal employees who inspired me and continually demonstrated the importance and rewards of public service. As we all know, the financial rewards are modest, but the opportunities to do important work and make a significant enduring contribution are there if we seize the opportunity.

I am especially appreciative that Roger Bugenhagen, the person that hired me and mentored me over much of my career is here today. From Roger, I learned that common sense is truly uncommon, that you lead by example, and that every job and every person, no matter how junior, can and must contribute to the mission.

From Shirley Kallek, a Census legend, I learned the importance of challenging the status quo, understanding the budget, and that embracing big ideas can lead to big results.

From Knick Knickerbocker, I learned the importance of civility, the knack of clear communication, and the incredible things that can be accomplished when you are empowered to lead, and you, in turn, empower staff.

From Steve Murdock, I learned the need to get out of your comfort zone by taking on a scary assignment or scary job. 2008 and 2009 were plenty scary, but the opportunity to see first-hand how this organization responded to incredible challenges and a sea of skepticism about whether we could conduct a successful 2010 Census was the most rewarding experience of my career.

I was lucky enough to work three years with Bob Groves, our former director and the single-most effective leader I have ever had the honor to work with. Bob is the consummate multi-tasker, and the change agenda he established was sometimes exhausting but always energizing. Over the past year, we have institutionalized the change agenda and even expanded it. I remain more convinced than ever that we must transform the way we do business, and I know we will.

I have been a federal employee for 40 years, and I have never regretted my career choice. I have had the opportunity to do important work – developing, producing, and directing statistical programs that influence financial markets and inform public and private decision makers.

Democracies require statistics that are credible, trusted, nonpartisan, and relevant. It has been my good fortune to spend my entire career at the Census Bureau, a great institution. Carrying out our mission as “fact finder” for the nation has been exciting, sometimes challenging, but always fulfilling. My fervent wish is that my career may, in some small way, inspire more young people to heed the call of public service.

I am really humbled and honored by the turn out today and the numerous messages and conversations I have had with staff thanking me for my service and contributions. But the real thanks should go to the thousands of Census Bureau employees who I have worked with over the past 40 years. Without your dedication, creativity, and contributions, I could not have accomplished anything.

Let me conclude by saying that I hope this organization will be bold – I encourage you to embrace the big ideas that can truly transform the way we do business. Second, I encourage you to guard against insular thinking, look outwardly for new ideas and innovations and steal shamelessly. Third, find ways to reduce the metawork – far too many resources are being expended on responding to multiple, duplicative reviews and second-guessing. We need to focus on value-added activities that contribute to the mission. And finally, focus on finding ways to grow, engage, and empower every one in the Census Bureau regardless of grade or occupation.

So, I leave this organization feeling confident in the future and thankful for having had the opportunity of working with such a great group of people both inside and outside the Census Bureau.

Posted in About the Agency, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Story of the Census Bureau’s Newly Updated America’s Economy Mobile App

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Written by: Tom Mesenbourg

Each month, homebuilders, job creators and policy-makers watch economic indicators, such as employment and new residential construction, to see how the U.S. economy is doing. When the America’s Economy app launched last summer, for the first time, you could get these key economic indicators and more on your mobile device as soon as they were released, allowing you to take the pulse of America’s economy straight from your phone. Since then, use of the Census Bureau’s indicators has quintupled.

We are proud of the Census Bureau’s first mobile app but we are not done. We continue to listen to your feedback to make it even more useful. Over the past year, you have told us what else you would like to see.

Today, we added three indicators from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the producer price index, consumer price index and nonfarm payroll. These new indicators join the 16 already available from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

CPI pull up on app

CPI in America’s Economy

If you have not already downloaded America’s Economy, now is the perfect time to discover this free app and learn more about U.S. economic data. The statistics available in America’s Economy drive business hiring, sales and production decisions and assist economists, researchers, planners and policymakers. For example, realtors may look at the home ownership rate or new residential sales in the app to measure the health of the industry.

What can the app do? Not only will it give you the new figure for each indicator each time it is released, but you can also explore trend data, view schedules of upcoming releases, share each indicator via Facebook, Twitter or via email and set up notifications for the release of new indicators.

The app has many useful applications for a variety of organizations. The construction industry might use the statistics in the app to project future growth and plan upcoming projects. Other organizations may use the trade data to see how U.S. exports compare or use the app to promote greater understanding of economic data.

The addition of these three new indicators is just one way we are not only making our statistics more accessible but also working together with other agencies to bring federal statistics together in one convenient place. We will continue to listen to your feedback for ways to improve the app.

With America’s Economy and other innovations, we are using 21st century technology to meet our centuries-old mission of making the statistics that define our growing, changing nation more accessible to the public than ever before. In line with the Digital Government Strategy, the app makes our economic data available anytime, anywhere and on any device. Look for two more mobile apps, and other exciting updates from the Census Bureau in the coming months as we continue our digital transformation.

Posted in Digital Transformation | 1 Comment

Census Bureau Budget Update

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Written by: Tom Mesenbourg

On March 26, 2013, the President signed the FY 2013 budget bill.  The Census Bureau’s FY 2013 enacted discretionary budget is $858 million, $112 million or 11 percent below the President’s request of $970 million.  The enacted budget reflected specific cuts to selected periodic programs as well as across the board sequestration and rescission reductions to each of the Census Bureau’s fifteen program budgets. The Department of Commerce submitted individual bureau spend plans to the Congress in May and the spend plans were finalized on June 13, 2013.  This blog describes the impact of the FY 2013 enacted budget.

The Census Bureau is committed to transforming the way we do business. This year we halved the number of Regional Offices from twelve to six; changed the way we manage and conduct our reimbursable surveys; significantly expanded internet data collection for both the American Community Survey and the 2012 Economic Census; cut administrative costs; and began transforming the way we process surveys and censuses through the use of adaptive design and shared services.  While these initiatives helped address some of the budget shortfall, additional actions were required to operate at the lower funding levels.

Strategically, our goal was to minimize the impact on our employees, seeking to avoid furloughs, while sustaining our core mission and preserving our most important programs within the limited flexibility provided.  In order to minimize program terminations, we have cancelled, reduced the scope of, or not awarded over $30 million in contracts originally planned for the second half of this fiscal year.  These contract reductions, of course, will have programmatic impacts.  Additionally, we have imposed a hiring freeze for all but the most mission critical positions.  We will not fill over 100 critical vacancies, we have reassigned 26 employees to other work, and we terminated the appointments of 41 temporary employees at the National Processing Center who were working on the Economic Census.  In addition, we have reduced training, travel, and other discretionary spending.

In terms of major programs, the impacts of reduced funding levels are described below.

Economic Programs:  In March, the Census Bureau suspended all work on the 2012 Survey of Business Owners (SBO) in anticipation of reduced Economic Census funding.  This survey, conducted every five years, is the only source of information on women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses and small business entrepreneurial activity.  In order to initiate SBO data collection this fiscal year, the Census Bureau is reprogramming $2.25 million from the 2010 Census to the Economic Census.

Reductions to the 2012 Economic Census staffing levels, both in the National Processing Center and at Census headquarters, may cause up to a six-month delay in the delivery of over 1,600 Economic Census products, which ultimately support the accuracy of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  The Census Bureau has suspended all work on the 2012 Information, Communication, and Technology Survey, which is an important source of business investment data used for economic forecasting.

2020 Decennial Census Programs:  Planning for a Decennial Census is a decade-long endeavor, based on planning and research.  The substantial cuts to the 2020 Census threaten the Census Bureau’s ability to deliver the preliminary design options for the 2020 Census in FY 2015, as scheduled.  At the reduced funding level, we cannot carry out the planned research and testing plan needed to inform the design options.  The reduced FY 2013 funding level also has forced us to delay field tests and preparatory work related to FY 2014 field tests, which pushes back the evidence needed to make design decisions in FY 2015. Delays in research related to more cost-effective census methods could result in higher census costs later in the decade.

Geographic Support Program:  Reductions to the Geographic Support program will delay important research related to the Master Address File, likely delaying decisions about the viability of cost-saving designs associated with the 2020 Census address canvassing operation, scheduled for later in the decade.

American Community Survey:  Cuts to the American Community Survey (ACS) eliminate much needed investments in the ACS processing infrastructure, program management, and research program.  These reductions undermine the ACS’s ability to serve as a test bed for the 2020 Census and will likely delay planned ACS content and instrument research and testing.

Demographic Programs:  Cuts to these programs prevent the implementation of new supplemental poverty measures.  These new measures would have supplemented the official measures of poverty with annual measures from the CPS Annual Social and Economic Supplement that more accurately measure economic deprivation.  These cuts will also delay data releases for the 2014 panel for the Survey of Income and Program Participation.

2010 Census:  In order to provide funding for the 2012 Survey of Business Owners, the Census Bureau requested and the Congress approved the reprogramming of $2.25 million from the 2010 Census.  The loss of this funding will delay, or possibly cancel, the release of the 2010 Census Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file.  The staff working on the 2010 PUMS file have been reassigned to work on the 2020 Census program.

The actions described above permit us to operate at the lower funding levels for FY 2013.  However, these reductions are not sustainable in the future.  The Census Bureau needs full funding – and needs it early in FY 2014, in order to avoid terminating additional programs and causing major disruptions to the 2020 Census Research and Testing Program.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Why Respondents Matter

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Written by: Tom Mesenbourg

The Census Bureau has a long and distinguished history as “Fact Finder for the Nation.”  Besides the Decennial Census, the Economic Census, and the Census of Governments, the Census Bureau conducts a number of monthly, quarterly, and annual surveys of households, institutions, and businesses that provide critical information about our nation’s economy, people, and institutions. The American Community Survey, the replacement for the decennial “long form,” is a national information asset, providing detailed information about the socioeconomic and housing characteristics of some 700,000 communities. Free markets and our democratic form of government depend on factual information that is relevant, credible, impartial, and trusted and the Census Bureau takes great pride in the fact that our statistics have long served as the cornerstone of the nation’s statistical information infrastructure.

Census Bureau statistics are widely disseminated and are available at no cost to nearly a million weekly visitors to Census.gov and through our mobile app, America’s Economy.  However, the Census Bureau recognizes that our statistical programs do impose a cost on the businesses and households we survey – the time that it takes them to complete and file their forms. We do not take this reporting burden lightly.  We have made it easier to report by providing online response capabilities for 61 surveys; we make extensive use of statistical sampling to reduce the number of households contacted; and, in the case of our business surveys, we use federal administrative records data in lieu of direct collection to reduce the burden on small businesses, while lowering the cost of data collection. Even in the years when we collect Economic Census information (years ending in “2” and “7”), less than 25 percent of our nation’s business locations receive a business report form, and in non-Economic Census years, less than 3 percent of business locations are surveyed.

During the nine years of the decade when we do not do a population census, less than 4 percent of all the households in the United States receive  a household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. While the American Community Survey is the largest household survey conducted by the federal government, households that invest the 40 minutes or less it takes to complete the survey probably will not be contacted again by the ACS program during the rest of the decade, unless they move. The cooperation of these households permits the Census Bureau to provide businesses, consumers, local governments, policymakers, and the general public with relevant, credible, and consistent information they need to make informed decisions. The Census Bureau has some of the highest participation rates in the survey business because the Census Bureau is trusted; respondents know we will protect and safeguard the information they provide and that we only release summary statistics, further protecting the individual identity of any survey respondent.  Nonetheless, not every household responds to our initial survey contact. To ensure complete and representative coverage, our skilled and well-trained telephone and field interviewers will contact households that have not responded, often multiple times, to obtain the requested information.  We understand that some respondents may not understand the value of the information that we are requesting or may believe that the Census Bureau staff is too persistent in attempting to elicit a survey response. We respect these views and believe we must do a better job identifying and responding to respondent concerns.

In April 2013, I appointed Tim Olson as the Census Bureau’s first Respondent Advocate for Household Surveys. Tim’s job is a new one and a challenging one – to be the “voice” of our most valued resource – our survey respondents. Tim spent nearly 20 years working in the Field Directorate, which oversees the collection of information by our three telephone centers and our six regional offices, who employ nearly 7,000 field interviewers. Tim also played an important role directing our 2010 Census partnership program that included some 257,000 different organizations across the nation. The 2010 Census partnership program, through local organizations and trusted voices, helped convince reluctant segments of the population to participate in the 2010 Census.

Tim’s experience and personality make him uniquely qualified to represent household survey respondents, articulating their concerns and advocating on their behalf. In this role, he will work directly with respondents, telephone center staff, field interviewers, and congressional offices to identify respondent concerns and issues, develop metrics to categorize and track their concerns, and work with Census Bureau program offices to address them. Tim will also advocate for the respondent during multiple phases of the survey lifecycle, including questionnaire design, preparation of respondent communications and engagement materials, mode selection, and follow-up strategies. This is a challenging but very important position. I know that Tim will be an effective spokesperson for household respondents, and I am confident that he will help make the Census Bureau more aware and more sensitive to the concerns of our household respondents. While the Census Bureau continues to receive unprecedented support and cooperation from the American people, achieving a 97 percent response rate for the American Community Survey, we can and must do better. By voicing survey respondent concerns throughout the Census Bureau, highlighting their perspective with those designing surveys and collecting data, we can be more respectful of survey respondents while continuing to deliver the quality data our nation needs to grow and prosper.

If you are a household respondent and have concerns or suggestions about how we can do better, please contact Tim at timothy.p.olson@census.gov. Not only is he a nice guy, he is also a great listener and knows how to get things done on your behalf.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments