Last week, I, Stephen Robert Morse, had the opportunity to interview former Census Director/current Census Bureau consultant Kenneth Prewitt. The following piece is certainly long (5,000+ words), but I think that it will provide many answers for people who have questions about the 2010 Census. If you don’t have the stamina to read such a long piece, I urge you to read the shortened version of this interview on MotherJones.com. Enjoy the following:
6/23/09: Conversation with Kenneth Prewitt, former Director of the U.S. Census Bureau
Interview by Stephen Robert Morse
SRM: When did you arrive back at the Census Bureau?
KP: By arrive back, you mean in the consultant sense?
KP: I have been sworn in, but I haven’t actually started work, so I wouldn’t say that I have arrived back yet. I haven’t done any work yet because I was hoping that the confirmation process [for Robert M. Groves] would play out. I’ve done very little, but I’m probably going to try to get started in the next week or so.
SRM: Do you have to wait for Robert M. Groves’s Senate confirmation before you begin?
KP: No, I don’t have to wait. I just felt like it made more sense to do whatever I could whatever I could with the leadership who will be in place for the duration of the decennial. But no, it’s partly my own schedule and getting free of my obligations here [in New York] and so forth.
SRM: If you’re not running the show right now and Robert Groves isn’t running the show right now, who is running the show at the Census Bureau in Washington?
KP: Well, they’ve got an Acting Director [Tom Mesenbourg] who is running the show, and even if I had been there I wouldn’t be running the show [He laughs!] They have a leadership structure. The Census Bureau is not unfamiliar with acting directors. If you look across any decade, you will find that about 15-20% of the time, it being run by an acting director. So it’s not an unusual structure.
SRM: That’s a good lead-in to another question. Do you think the Director of the Census Bureau should have a fixed term? If so, for how long?
KP: I very strongly think it should be a fixed term. It should be a presidential appointed, Senate confirmed, five-year term, starting in the year 07 or 02 (or 12 or 17), off-cycle of the decennial Census (which takes place in years ending in 0), renewable once without Senate confirmation. And were it to be renewed again, it would go back to the Senate, so it could be a ten-year term with one Senate confirmation. I feel very strongly that it should be a fixed term.
SRM: And do you think the Census Bureau should be an independent agency?
KP: I very strongly feel that it should be an independent agency. It’s a scientific organization. It’s like the National Science Foundation, like NIH, like the Archives Center. It has a statistical responsibility for society and it should be treated as a science institution and like NASA and I think it would be a much stronger institution if it were independent.
SRM: Do you think the Census Bureau has been damaged by partisan activity?
KP: It’s a complicated question because the partisan activity goes back to 1790. [laughs] The first presidential veto, by George Washington, was a veto of Alexander Hamilton’s formula for apportioning the House, and the one that Washington preferred was one that Thomas Jefferson produced, and that was one partisan issue. The apportionment formula that Jefferson produced gave an extra seat to Virginia. Everybody knew what that game was [laughs]. That was partisan. Look, partisan interest in the census is simply nothing new. Has there been damage over that period? Yes, on and off. For example, after the 1920 Census, the House of Representatives was not apportioned. It was simply not apportioned, for ten years. That was a partisan issue. It wasn’t the Census Bureau itself, but it was a Census Bureau product in which the apportionment numbers simply weren’t used.
SRM: How does partisanship affect the census today?
KP: I think the sampling fight, whatever it was, was deeply unfortunate. And it was a partisan fight. And I have written at great length and argued a great length that it shouldn’t have been partisan. The Census Bureau does not know how to be partisan. If it tried to design a census that had a partisan outcome, it wouldn’t know how to do it. How could you predict in three or four or five years before you are doing the decennial census, a design that would benefit this district instead of that district? If you’re trying to count everybody, you wouldn’t know how to torque it in a way. It’s all about a share basis. All apportionment numbers and redistricting numbers are on a share basis, which means that if you do something here, you’re adjusting the entire system, because it’s allocated on a fixed pie, on a share basis. So the actual assertion that the Census Bureau could behave in such a way as to tilt things one way or the other way in the partisan sense, is, on the face of it, a silly charge. It’s the same Census Bureau that’s considered to be incompetent by some people and then some of the same people are saying that this incompetent agency is so clever and so Machiavellian that it can design a census for partisan reasons. It just doesn’t compute. Now, did [accusations of partisanship] damage the census? Yes, it damaged the idea of sampling. As I quip, I like to tell the people I interact with who are against sampling, I say, “Next time you want to go to the doctor for a blood test, don’t say ‘I want you to take out a little bit,’ say ‘Take out all of it!’ How else will you know? Clearly there’s a fundamental sense in which the public and the leadership understand sampling. When you wake up in the morning and you want to find out whether it’s raining, you don’t look out every window of your house, you look out one window. There, you sampled. Etcetera, etcetera. So, the idea that we turned the word sampling into a dirty word and a partisan word is deeply, deeply damaging, not to the Census Bureau, but the idea of fiscal integrity, the idea of how do you have the best count possible. That’s not necessarily an argument for a particular methodology, dual system estimation. It’s a complicated, difficult methodology, and the Census Bureau has now worked on it, and understands that it hasn’t quite gotten it right yet, but the whole thought that this is about something called sampling, goes against a very particular technical methodology, which the U.S. Congress has not shown the patience to try to understand, is unfortunate. On the other hand, every other number we use to govern society, the CPI, all the lagging indicators, unemployment numbers, trade statistics, healthcare, how many people are uninsured, all of those numbers are based on samples.
SRM: After President Obama was elected, you were the frontrunner to become the next Director of the Census Bureau. Even the New York Times endorsed you for this position. Why did you withdraw your name from the running?
KP: By the way, I don’t know what the word “frontrunner” means in that sense. I am aware that my name was mentioned, but who knows who the frontrunner was or was not? I was aware that I was under consideration. At a certain point, I felt it more appropriate and more useful, because I had decided that I was not going to be able to relocate, I have heavy duties at Columbia University, and I wanted to continue those duties. In that sense, I wrote a note that said, “If you are considering me, please don’t.” But I wouldn’t say that I was a nominee who withdrew.
SRM: Why do you think Bob Groves’ confirmation [to become the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau] has been stalled?
KP: I wish I had a good answer to that question. I really do. I see that some people went through last week. I think maybe nineteen people, or some large number of people, went through last week. But why he wasn’t on that list, I don’t know. As I had quickly e-mailed to you, I had gone along on the assumption that everybody was being held out because of the start of the hearings on Sotomayor. But if they are letting some people through but not Bob, I simply don’t have a good explanation for that.
SRM: Do you have any suspicions as to who stalled the nomination?
KP: No, I really don’t. I don’t walk the halls of Congress, where I could learn that. I think I would know if it were knowable, if somebody knew.
SRM: When do you think this will be resolved?
KP: How about six weeks ago? [Laughs] That’s when I thought it would be resolved. I just find it sad, on one level, because somebody doesn’t take the census serious enough to recognize that leadership matters. And leadership does matter. It’s June, for heaven sakes. It’s already too late to improve some things, but it’s going to get increasingly too late to improve anything. And the poor Census Bureau is going to get beaten up for something it didn’t have any say-so in. At the end of the day, nobody’s going to remember that you didn’t have a director [currently there is an acting director] for a year and a half, going on two years. But there was also a long period before Murdoch [Stephen Murdoch, Census Director during the last year of the Bush administration] was appointed and confirmed. That’s a slight exaggeration because the deputy census director had been basically eased out (forced into retirement) and the then-census director Louis Kincannon had said that he would resign. However, he said that he would stay on until a replacement was in place, but once he decided to announce that he would resign, it obviously created a lame duck situation. So it was obviously very difficult for the Census Bureau to move during that period. And it took the Bush Administration a year to find Murdoch and then another six months to get him confirmed, so in that sense there was an 18 month period when you were expecting to have a director and you didn’t have one. Louis was still there for much of it. He’s a very first rate man and a very effective guy but he had already announced that he was leaving, so in terms of planning the decennial, there wasn’t a whole lot that Louis could be doing.
SRM: As we’re now talking about the Census Bureau in the early and mid 2000s, what happened to the 2010 Census? Where did things go wrong? What are your thoughts?
KP: Hermann Habermann, who Louis Kincannon appointed when he was became Director, was a very talented and important Deputy Director (of the Census Bureau). Hermann and Louis both had deep experience within the Census Bureau and both had gone on to do other kinds of things. Louis had gone on to OECD (?) and Hermann had gone on to the United Nations Fiscal Program, so they were real, major professionals and were running, I think, a very good operation. And this is now back in 02, 03, 04. Then there were some money problems, some serious money problems. Not money problems in terms of the Census Bureau’s budget, but it got held up, there were continued resolutions. It had nothing to do with the Census Bureau, they just got chewed up in the process, which meant that there was a period, and I don’t have that period in my mind, but a period in the mid-decade, when they couldn’t actually plan seriously for the decennial, because they didn’t know how much money they were going to have. They didn’t have the kind of money in that year, for example, to do the kind of planning they needed to do. They were really being squeezed financially. Then, after the ’06 election, Hermann was basically eased out by the Commerce Department.
SRM: What does that mean exactly?
KP: He was told that he would be reassigned from being deputy director of the Census Bureau to some other job in the Commerce Department, which was not one he wanted, so in that sense he wasn’t going to be what he thought he was, which was Deputy Director of the Census Bureau. So, that was when Louis Kincannon said “If I can’t have my own Deputy Director, then I myself will resign.” So that’s in ’06 and that was done by the [Bush] Administration for whatever its reasons were. I know what the public reasons were, but I don’t think they were the real reasons.
SRM: What were those reasons?
KP: The public reason was that there had been a laptop issue, and they blamed Hermann for that laptop issue. There were stolen laptops. Look, the proportion of stolen laptops at the Census Bureau that went missing were a tiny percentage of what some other agencies were experiencing. And Hermann was a very responsible civil servant, and when the word came out that he had to let us know what the laptop situation was under the law, blah, blah, blah, he answered forthrightly and quickly, so the Census Bureau took the hit, and for whatever reason they decided to blame him. Ok, now I’m getting all of this back in my mind. So Hermann then leaves and Jay Waite becomes Deputy Director, so essentially Jay Waite was running the decennial census during that time. It was then in that period, then, this is in 06, after the mid-term, when they begin to run into troubles with the handhelds. As I said, Hermann was first-rate and he was managing the contracts. So, they didn’t really have anyone to be managing those contracts, and Jay Waite, who is a very talented man on some operations, he just wasn’t attuned to some of the issues that could come up with the handheld situation, so that one got out of hand.
SRM: So who’s fault was this? Who’s fault was this whole handheld computer debacle?
KP: The Department of Commerce. This is why I think it needs to be an independent agency. They weren’t paying attention to the Census Bureau during the intermediate years. That’s always true. That’s why it has to be independent. Look, who is to blame? That’s a Washington question. Structures are some times to blame, not people. I mean, you can create a structure which makes carrying out a certain task very difficult, not in order to carry that task out, in order to do something else, but the result is unintended consequences. The unintended consequence of getting Hermann Habermann out of the Deputy Director position in those years was not having anyone pay attention to the handheld debacle. The fact that Hermann Habermann was removed on not a very good charge contributed to the fact that nobody was paying attention to the contract, the Harris contract [the $600 million debacle to create handheld computers for the 2010 Census], at the level of detail he needed to be paying attention to for about a year.
SRM: There were reports by the Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, and they all said over and over again that the 2010 Census was a very high risk situation. It seems like even after these reports came out that there were opportunities to correct these errors, but nobody listened this advice. Again, who is to blame? Why did this happen? What is the root of these failures?
KP: Well, I don’t know. Whoever it was that doesn’t want Bob Groves…I’m not trying to find somebody to blame. I’m trying to say, what is the situation that leads to these kind of outcomes? All of this starts during the mid-term elections in 06. You had a quasi-leaderless situation in 06-07. Then, you get the handheld fiasco, whatever you want to call it. Then the Secretary of Commerce and the Commerce Department tries to put something together in an emergency situation. But then with Steve Murdoch in the Directorship position, but then there’s an election in 08. But because there’s not a term appointment [for the Census Director], Murdoch is clearly not going to go, so it’s now…
SRM: What are your thoughts on Murdoch and his leadership?
KP: Steve was in a difficult position, because if he had a five-year term, he could have run the Bureau differently than if you think you’re going to be there for a year. That’s why this fixed term really does matter. So the Census Bureau gets jerked around, starting in 06, first by the administration, and then by Congress not acting, and then on budgetary issues and so forth. And suddenly you’re walking up to 2010 and you’ve gone almost four years without a permanent, solid, leadership team in place to do the decennial, because the person who was doing it, Jay Waite, also leaves, and I won’t blame anybody, but he leaves. Murdoch leaves because he had to. Tom Mesenbourg [current acting director of the Census Bureau] who I have a great deal of respect for, a very talented man, becomes Acting Director, but he had never done a decennial, so he’s got to learn on the job. He’s doing a first-rate job of learning on the job, but he had never done a decennial. So you have an agency that no one is actually paying attention to until there’s a problem, and then there’s a lot of rushing around and looking for quote on quote, someone to blame. And now, we’re perpetuating it by letting Bob Groves sit around at his apartment in Washington instead of running the Census Bureau.
SRM: So Bob’s not even going into the office yet?
KP: He can’t. He technically can’t.
SRM: There was a Field Data Collection Automation Task Force, known as the FDCA Task Force, and they made another report to Carlos Gutierrez (Secretary of Commerce) in early 2008 with recommendations on how to improve the collection of field data. What has been done since early 2008, for over a year now?
KP: If that’s the task force I’m thinking of, then I was on it. Our only job was to advise Gutierrez on what to do regarding the handheld computers. And that was the task force that said “Keep them for address canvassing but don’t use them for non-response follow-up. So in that sense, it was acted upon.
SRM: Do you think that it’s surprising that here we are, in the year 2009, and we’re conducting the 2010 Census without using technology for all parts of the operation?
KP: Let me put it as follows. I think the Census Bureau has been a technical innovator, certainly since the start of the 20th Century. After all, it was the first agency to use the Hollerith Card, the old punch card which was married to an adding machine which became IBM. It invented sampling theory in the 1930s. It was the first federal agency to use a major mainframe in the 1950s. It was extremely adept in 2000 in doing intelligent character recognition and data capture using very, very high-tech processes. And I think you can say about 2010, that it was technically innovative in using the handhelds in address canvassing. Who’s to say that they had to use handhelds for non-response follow-up? So, they have been technologically innovative once again, with respect to GPS and address canvassing. I don’t know the results yet, but I hope we’ve come out of this with a much better address list than we had in 2000. We won’t know until we start in the field, but at least one has reason to think it is. So, I think it has been technologically innovative. The fact that you didn’t take the extra step for non-response follow-up doesn’t mean that it’s been technologically stagnant.
SRM: But do these handheld computer devices from the Harris Corporation even work properly? And were they designed properly?
KP: Well, that I’m not in the position to judge. They’re doing quality studies on that right now.
SRM: Do you think that Harris Corp. is a worthy company to receive these contracts?
KP: I need to see how well the devices work. Anybody who gives you an opinion on that is doing it before the data are in.
SRM: I don’t know if you’ve read on MyTwoCensus.com and other blogs, where people have complained about the functionality of these devices.
KP: When you payroll 140,000 people, it’s not hard to find people who are disgruntled. And I’m not saying they’re wrong. I actually talked to people who did the address canvassing work, people I know extremely well, people who had no reason whatsoever not to tell me what was going on, and they had some problems, but they are convinced that they ended the process by producing a much better address list then when they went into it. And that’s the test. Of course there’s always somebody saying “this didn’t work” or “that didn’t work.” But the test is, do we have a better address list? And that’s quality control judgment. I’m not trying to slam your website (MyTwoCensus.com) but you have to appreciate that you are getting a self-selected group of correspondents. But I’m not passing judgment on you, and you shouldn’t pass judgment on the technology until the data are in. What I’m saying is that I don’t think the people who are writing to bloggers are the people producing systematic data.
SRM: I understand that. So, what are the greatest obstacles that remain for the 2010 Census operation?
KP: The old ones. They haven’t changed. One, you’ve got to start with a good address list. If it’s a good one, good. If it’s not, then you can’t have a good census because that’s your frame. And when you send non-response follow-up people, there’s that. Secondly, you’ve got to hope for a decent mail-back response rate, because the workload goes way up and the costs go way up if you don’t have a good mail back response rate. And we simply do not yet know what the response rate is because we haven’t done it yet. But if it’s not in the mid-60s, it’s going to be both budgetarily and operationally very difficult for the Census Bureau. And in 2000, we had expected to be in the low 60s, and we got into the mid to high 60s and that was an enormous boost, and we did it with a first-rate effort. And I think that the people running the advertising campaign right now and all of the outreach are very good professionals and I hope they are successful. But it’s up to the American people to do it. What can the Census Bureau do, other than put it in their mailboxes on schedule. And if they [the American people] don’t send it back in, they have to start knocking on the door. So there is the mail-back response rate and then there’s the willingness to cooperate in non-response follow up, and then there’s the startling problem of the enormous number of undocumented in the country, who will have every reason not to want to cooperate with the federal government.
SRM: What do you think about people like Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who last week, in an interview with The Washington Times, said that she refused to fill out the 2010 Census form?
KP: I think it’s seriously unfortunate when an elected official of the federal government says that I’m going to deliberately break the law. I don’t know what kind of signal she thinks that sends, but if she believes that’s a good signal, I’m sad for the country. She says, incorrectly, because she hasn’t read the law, that the only thing she needed to do is give the number of people who live in her household. If everyone in the country did that, you would have zero quality control. Zero, because you do quality control not only on how many there are, but is the family structure the way you told it is, is the racial composition, is the gender composition? You do quality control on all those other variables, and it means that you’re eliminating the capacity of the Census Bureau to do quality control. I think that it’s deeply, deeply, unfortunate that a member of Congress would, in effect, announce that, and invite other people who feel that way to say, “Well I don’t have to do it either.”
SRM: Do you think this has become a partisan issue?
KP: I have no idea. You asked me what I thought. It’s my opinion of her behavior. I don’t know her motivation.
SRM: Do you think that radio hosts and other prominent people questioning whether people should participate in the 2010 Census would turn this into a partisan issue?
KP: Everything can turn into a partisan issue. Honestly, I can tell you what the consequences are, but in terms of motivation, when you don’t know the people, I don’t know if it’s a partisan or non-partisan issue. I think it’s unfortunate for what it will do to the 2010 Census.
SRM: I’m sure the Mother Jones readers would be very interested in me asking about President Obama’s announcement on Friday, June 19 that gay marriage would now be able to be counted in the 2010 Census. What exactly does that mean and how exactly would that be done?
KP: Here I’m fairly confident that they have not worked out the exact operational procedures yet, because this was not expected when they were designing the questionnaire and designing the procedures, they did not think this was how they would be tabulating it. There isn’t a good answer to your question yet, or at least I haven’t seen it. Look, any time you are doing something with 300 million people, it’s not easy to get it right in different locales, however the question is worded on this now. Relationships in the household are on the short form.
SRM: Will the government be printing new forms now?
KP: No, it’s impossible. You can’t start reprinting new forms now. This stuff is already being printed. It takes a very long time and a lot of forward planning to run something of this magnitude. The idea of reprinting would probably be impossible.
SRM: So how would gay households know that they count?
KP: Well, that’s something that I can’t answer because I haven’t seen anything yet. There will be some serious effort by Census Bureau personnel to create an operational plan that will make it work. I think they will go about this very seriously to make sure there aren’t any errors in the data. They want to get it right. This is who they are and what they do.
SRM: I noticed that Steve Jost (political appointee and former Census Bureau communications director) is back at the Census Bureau, and he was one of your deputies during the Clinton administration. Are you bringing back many people who were formerly there during the a Clinton administration.
KP: Jost is probably the only one. Hundreds of people at the Census Bureau were there during the Clinton administration. The Census Bureau has about five thousand employees, and if they didn’t retire or die, then they were still there in 2000. In terms of political appointees, there’s only 4. The director, the communications director, Steve Jost, the legislative director, and I’m absolutely certain that the person I had as legislative director will not be coming back, and then there’s intergovernmental relations, who deals with governors and mayors, and I’m absolutely certain that person is not coming back. So I think Jost would be the only one.
SRM: What about you? What’s your actual title now?
SRM: Is that a part-time job?
KP: Certainly it’s a part-time job. Good gosh, I’ve got a real job. I’m just a consultant for the Census Bureau.
SRM: Are you the only person that has that title or do other people also have that title?
KP: I bet they have two or three hundred consultants out there doing different kind of work right now. You shouldn’t quote me on that number, but I imagine there’s a very large number of people doing some version of consulting work. You’ve got to imagine how big this is. For example, you may have a consultant who tells you how to make sure the trucks which are delivering the census forms to the data capture centers got an extra driver on April 13th to make sure they arrive on time. OR if they’re going to fingerprint everybody, you may have a consultant who tells you how to count a fingerprint to make sure this all runs smoothly and so forth. It’s big. If you’re going to payroll a million people, you may have consultants to make sure the payroll system is functioning. So don’t make my role something special.
SRM: You are the only person whose role as a consultant has been reported, that’s why I was asking.
KP: Okay, fair enough. Don’t quote me on the number, but I would be very surprised to find out that the number is a very large number of consultants, on all kinds of technical issues and so forth.
SRM: I know it’s early, but what will people say when they look back on the 2010 Census?
KP: I hope they say they pulled off a miracle [laughs].
SRM: Will you need a miracle at this point?
KP: That’s a quip, but I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to do this census in the current environment. That has nothing to do with the Census Bureau’s skill set. It has to do with the American people’s not wanting to be bothered, not answering their mail, not having phone lines anymore because they got cell phones, and the Census Bureau wants to do follow-up on the phone, and they can’t find phone number because they’ve only got the landline number. It has to do with the number of mobile people who would have changed houses between the time you did the address listing and when you knocked on the door. Houses will get torn down and houses will be built. The whole foreclosure crisis is a major crisis because whole hunks of the country are empty when they should be functioning neighborhoods. There are just a host of problems. And then there are the ones we can’t predict. Who knows? Natural disasters, strikes, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. I know it’s going to be difficult, it’s always difficult to do a serious census. In this current economic and political and general cultural circumstances. Let me ask you a question. Let’s say there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. What percentage of those people do you think will mail a questionnaire back in?
KP: Whatever it is, it’ a low number. So let us say it’s 50%. That’s a 3% undercount before you start. Let us say it’s 25%, then you’ve got an even bigger undercount before you’ve even started.
SRM: So that’s what explains the need for the use of statistical sampling?
KP: That’s one of the reasons we were going to use it, but we can’t. So that just means that you’re doing a census knowing that you are going to miss a very significant proportion of the American population. And you’re obligated to count everyone, that’s just an uphill battle.
SRM: I really appreciate this conversation, and I definitely learned quite a bit. Thank you very much.
KP: It will only get more interesting.
SRM: I hope we can speak again soon. Thank you, goodbye.