Confirmed by the Senate last week, Gary Locke, the new commerce secretary, is off to a good start. For his first official act, he attended a Census 2010 kick-off rally in the capital on Monday morning, after taking a red eye from his home state of Washington.
His attendance raises hope that the Obama administration is now truly focused on the upcoming census, which was largely mismanaged and undermined during the Bush years. As a result of those policies, the census is widely acknowledged to be at high risk of failure unless emergency remedial action is taken.
Mr. Locke’s high-profile attention to the census comes not a moment too soon. The decennial count starts in earnest this week, as 140,000 census workers, deployed out of 150 local offices, begin a street-by-street canvassing operation to verify and update more than 145 million addresses. Based on the canvassing results, some 120 million households will receive specially bar-coded census forms by mail early next year.
If all goes according to plan, about two-thirds of the recipients will complete and return the form; the government will try to interview the remainder in person by dispatching hundreds of thousands of census takers to nonrespondents’ homes. And that is only a snapshot of the undertaking. In terms of personnel, logistics, statistical expertise, managerial support and sheer human effort, the decennial census is the nation’s largest nonmilitary mobilization.
Mr. Locke has much to do besides rally the troops. The administration must, without further delay, nominate a new census director. Currently, the bureau is being run by civil servants who are dedicated and proficient but lack the authority — and political support — that comes from a director who has the ear of the commerce secretary.
Since it will probably take several months for a director nominee to be vetted and confirmed, Mr. Locke must also begin to tackle some of the thorniest census problems on his own. For instance, in the run-up to other censuses, the federal government has eased up on immigration raids and other intimidating forms of immigration enforcement in an effort to cut down on the number of people who are afraid to be counted. The word must go out from the Obama administration that it expects the same cooperation as the 2010 count approaches.
Mr. Locke and the administration must also undo some of the most damaging census decisions by the Bush administration — like the decision earlier in this decade to push the date for cross-checking the census numbers back to October 2010. The census counts people in the country as of April 1, 2010, and the double-check on the numbers — which reveals an undercount or overcount — has always taken place in June or July. If the numbers are not checked until October, it will be virtually impossible to get a gauge of their accuracy, because the longer the time between the count and the cross-check, the less reliable the data will be.
Inclusiveness and accuracy are essential to an honest, robust count. After years of neglect, it will take a heroic effort to pull off a worthy 2010 census. We applaud Mr. Locke’s initial effort.