My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert M. Groves’

Tough economy aids search for census workers

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

As Census Bureau director Robert M. Groves said in a conference call last month, the recession is helpful to the Bureau because it means a larger, and more qualified, applicant pool.

The nationwide unemployment rate was 10 percent in November 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (new data is scheduled to be released tomorrow). That number, Time reports, is higher than any census year since 1940.

Time also reports how the Bureau is handling the influx of applications:

In this slow economy, the Census has been overwhelmed by both the quantity and quality of applicants. “We’re getting a lot of people who are professionals, people who have been laid off from the large companies, people with master’s degrees and higher,” says Lillie Eng-Hirt, who manages the Census office in Memphis, Tenn. One man was so grateful at being offered work, she relates, that he had the Census employee hiring him in tears after hearing his story of going without a job for so long.

Enthusiasm about the jobs has been so great that the Census pulled plans to advertise them nationally. Last spring, the Census did run ads when it was hiring canvassers for the summer — people who walk up and down every block in the U.S. to verify each address. The Census was hoping to get 700,000 applications in order to fill 200,000 spots. Instead, the bureau received 1.2 million. (Those applicants will be considered for the new positions too.) This time around, says decennial recruiting chief Wendy Button, the Census will run advertisements only in areas where it anticipates having trouble filling positions, such as inner cities, extremely rural areas and neighborhoods with large percentages of non-English-speaking residents.

And applicants aren’t the only thing the Cenus Bureau has a surplus of this year: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that the Bureau is having no trouble finding office space due to high vacancy rates. The paper says:

And the feds are finding plenty of cheap temporary places for desks, in a market in which roughly 20 percent of all office space stands silent.

Follow up: Transcript from Robert M. Groves conference call

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

There were some technical glitches during a media conference call last week with Census Bureau director Robert M. Groves about the status of the 2010 Census.

Stephen got dropped off the call, and we wrote an editorial criticizing the Bureau’s technical problems with the conference call and failure to make a transcript available.

This afternoon, Stacy Gimbel of the Census Bureau responded in the comments to the editorial with this link to the transcript of the briefing (as a pdf).

Some highlights from the end of the call:

  • In response to a question on the economy, Groves said the recession has led to a larger applicant pool for Census workers, but the vacancy rate (due to foreclosures) means forms will be sent to addresses where no one lives.
  • According to Groves, self-identification questions (such as about ethnicity) change on almost every Census form. The Bureau wants people to write-in how they identify themselves if none of the provided options apply.
  • And some upcoming key dates: Census road tour begins Jan. 4, media kickoff event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 14, paid media ads start airing Jan. 18, Groves travels to Alaska for the first enumeration of a remote village on Jan. 25.

MyTwoCensus Editorial: Press Conference Is A Farce Because Of Tech Failure

Friday, December 18th, 2009

On Monday, December 14, Dr. Robert M. Groves, Director of the Census Bureau, attempted to hold a press conference about the status of the 2010 Census. However, after only a handful of questions were asked during the Q&A time, the phone line for the conference call mysteriously died. I, like many other journalists, could see from my phone that I was still connected to the call, meaning that the audio from the Census Bureau’s end had simply gone dead. I called back in to the conference call and was re-connected to the event. Once connected, the phone line again remained silent. This was particularly annoying because prior to the glitch I was in line to ask a question, as were dozens of other journalists from across the country. I waited on the silent line for 15 minutes before realizing that this gaffe had effectively cut short Dr. Groves’ press conference, which is only the second one of this type (other than monthly operational briefings) he has given since taking office in July.

After this incident occurred, I e-mailed the Census Bureau’s public information office to inquire about how I could ask Dr. Groves my questions and and why the line went dead. I received the following reply, “Stephen — unfortunately the line went dead for everyone.  We don’t have a transcript and are researching how to get one. Do you have specific questions we can answer?” Since replying to this e-mail, I have had no response from the Census Bureau.

In the year 2009, failures of simple technology like are completely unacceptable. It is our hope that such operations issues are not indicative of the way that the 2010 Census will be run on a day to day basis. Making matters worse were the Census Bureau’s failure to apologize to the journalists who were dropped from the call and failure to provide a full transcript of the event, particularly after the audio breakdown.

We are still waiting for the transcript, an explanation, and an apology…

Live-blogging a conference call with Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves…

Monday, December 14th, 2009

10:00 – pretty sure the census bureau dropped the ball on this one because i called back in and the line is dead…either the call is over or more likely the census bureau/call center made some sort of error…

9:55 – KNOCKED OFF THE CALL…did it go dead? my line is still working fine…come on!

9:52 – Question: Why don’t you mention single, unattached people under age 30 as a hard-to-count group?

9:31 – 134 million addresses in the USA. As of now, they are 2% points high, compared to 5% high in the 2000 address…there were more duplicates then.

9:29 – go in pairs, with escorts, in high crime areas (for census enumerators)…

9:28 – safety in america: FBI NAME-CHECK…ALL APPLICANTS UNDERGOING FINGERPRINTING…on criminal history check, any convinces for major crimes such as grand theft, child molestation…etc…”if there are convictions of less serious crimes then the applicant can be hired if they don’t pose a risk to the american public”  – With so many people OUT OF WORK who don’t have felonies, why would you hire felons????

9:26 – Over 3.8 million people are being recruited for 1.2 million through 1.4 million people. 700,000 people working for the largest operation, Non-Response Follow Up from May through July 2010.

9:21 – Complete Count Committees forming…who ensures that there is bi-partisan representation on these 9,100 committees (37 in states). But are they bipartisan and independent?

9:20 – 135,000 partner organizations with the 2010 census…here’s one who’s not a partner anymore: ACORN

9:18 – 3 large processing centers open

9:17 – Grovesy talks about the ad campaign that’s getting started. Starting enumeration in Alaska in January. In March, most of the US population receives their forms. April 1 is Census Day (and April Fools Day…ah)…people should return their forms by this day. Otherwise the door-knockers will come knock knock knocking…some talk of reapportionment. In April 2011 the state-redistricting data for local/regional races is distributed.

9:16 – Grovesy’s giving us a quick history lesson about the Census….founding fathers yadda yadda…yawn

9:15 – Dr. Groves is in da house so to speak for the second operational press briefing (shouldn’t we have more of these?)

9:15 – 2010 Census PR Man Stephen Buckner is on the line…

9:13 – We are still standing by…this hold music is now reminiscent of terrible elevator rides.

9:07 – Kind of enjoying the jazz rendition of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer…on second thought, take as much time as you need to start this call.

9:05 – Come on Grovesy…I’m hungry for answers. (Still waiting for call to begin…)

8:59  – Call should begin shortly…

** CENSUS BUREAU MEDIA ADVISORY **

Census Bureau Director to Provide Update on
Status of 2010 Census Operations

What:         U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves will brief the media on the status of 2010 Census operations. Groves will provide an assessment of the Master Address File, which serves as the source of addresses for mailing and delivering more than 130 million 2010 Census forms next March. He will also provide  updates on outreach activities and other logistical operations under way.  The briefing will include a question-and-answer session.

When:        Monday, Dec. 14, 9 – 10 a.m. (EST)

Where:        National Press Club, 13th floor
Fourth Estate Restaurant
529 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20045

Members of the media may also participate by telephone. (Please dial-in early to allow time for the operator to place you in the call.)

A Cohort Of Census Bureau Officials Stay At The Ritz Carlton…On Your Dime!

Friday, December 11th, 2009

From BergersBeat.com:

At least one local purchaser of distressed commercial real estate tells the columnist that a St. Louis Chrysler plant will be hitting the market any edition. Broker? DESCO says the tipster. . .Which three additional local banks are this close to takeovers?. . .Taking a census at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Clayton, an insider noted that a party of 15 from the U.S. Census Bureau stayed there – not even in the City of St. Louis, where Missouri’s Census of Schools was launched by the bureau’s director Dr. Robert Groves.

Are we going to have to file a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out whether this is true? Hopefully not, as we just inquired about this with the Census Bureau’s Public Information Office. To be fair, the Census Bureau could have negotiated a pretty hefty corporate discount at The Ritz, particularly because it’s doubtful that the place is swirling with customers in this economy. But as one GOP insider said to us, “No wonder their budget’s out of control!”

UPDATE: Dr. Groves did NOT stay at the Ritz. And the other government officials stayed there for $110 per night (government rate). Case closed. (See below for the official Census Bureau response!)

Stephen,

Dr. Groves did not spend the night. He flew into St. Louis for the day to
participate in a Census-in-Schools event with Subcommittee Chairman Lacy
Clay and officials from the City of St. Louis. Three Census Bureau staff
members from Headquarters and nine from the Kansas City Region were in town
to support this event, which required a lot of preparation and received
national and local press coverage. Staff also were involved in operational
and partnership activities involving the Director and Chairman Clay. This
is an area that had a low mail response rate in 2000, so extra efforts by
regional staff are critical to improve the response rate and decrease the
undercount. Census Bureau staff stayed at the Ritz-Carlton because it is
centrally located and offers the government rate of $110 per night.

Burton H. Reist
Assistant to the Associate Director
Communications Directorate

Interview With Robert M. Groves: Census Director focuses on putting IT to the test before the big count

Friday, November 27th, 2009

H/t to Gautham Nagesh of NextGov for the following interview with Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves:

Since his confirmation in July, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves has found himself in charge of the costliest and most controversial census to date.

Well-publicized technology issues and budget overruns have hampered the bureau’s preparations for the 2010 count. Last month, Groves told lawmakers that the budget overruns leading to the decennial count’s $15 billion price tag were “intolerable.”

But he told Nextgov on Monday that the bureau plans to push the limits of new technology in tests scheduled for after the Thanksgiving break in hope of making sure the census goes as hitch-free as possible in April 2010.

Groves was the director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and served as associate director of the 1990 census in 1990. Nextgov reporter Gautham Nagesh spoke with him on Monday about the preparations for the 2010 census and the bureau’s progress on solving some of the technology problems that the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general found.

Nextgov: What is the status of the bureau’s preparations for the 2010 decennial census, especially concerning the information technology systems needed to support it?

Groves: I came in July and had not been there since 1990. There are a couple things to note on the IT side: First, I’ve been focused clearly on decennial IT issues, not on looking backwards. We have a new chief information officer, Brian McGrath, who came in weeks before me, and he was engaged in sort of the same thing I’m doing — checking the nature of the infrastructure for the decennial.

We had on our table GAO and IG reports concerning the lack of testing in an integrated way of the various subsystems used for the decennial census. We had some outside folks take a look at whether core subsystems were being tested in an integrated way.

We also have a new set of software we’re building as a result of the abandonment of the handhelds that will support paper-based nonresponse follow-up. That is the critical task on the software side I spend the most time on. After Thanksgiving we will perform a load test on systems that will be in action during nonresponse follow-up. We’re going to make sure we break the system to measure the capacity.

The other thing that’s notable from your readers’ perspective: We’re 80 percent through opening 500 different local Census offices, each of which has its own computer network issues. That was done through Harris Corp., part of the Field Data Collection Automation contract. We’ve got 400 local offices up and running, each site is its own little story. After some initial bumps that seems to be going well.

Nextgov: What was the situation like when you arrived regarding IT systems development? What in your view caused or contributed to the IT challenges at the Census Bureau?

Groves: I haven’t spent much time going back and diagnosing those problems. I have to focus on the future.

But I am a believer in certain philosophies when you develop software and hardware products for large, diverse sets of users, including that a user has to be at the table from Day One. The user has to be part of the inspection process for all the intermediate products as they are developed. The notion of writing down all the specs for complex systems and getting them right the first time, having programmers go away for a while and code those specs, that’s an approach that brings with it big risks.

In my past life in software development I have learned from a management perspective that you’ve got to get the user there all the time. They have to be part of the development. Humans can’t anticipate all the features of a software system before they see the first version of it.

But I need to emphasize that my job hasn’t been postmortem on handhelds, I have just not done that.

Nextgov: There were reports that the handhelds had some problems during address canvassing, particularly regarding their mapping function. How are you dealing with those?

Groves: There are two parts of the master address file: the geographical information that provides boundaries for aerial units and the address records. The big good news is that after this gigantic address canvassing operation, the number of records we have is very close to independent estimates of what it should be: 134 million households. That’s a good thing, based on the independent benchmark we get from sample surveys.

Now we’re going out and checking for clusters of records deleted [during address canvassing]. If you were listed in address canvassing and you noted that an address was improperly placed in a block, your job [as a canvasser] was to delete that one address and add it in the correct place [using the handheld]. We’re scrutinizing any clusters of deletes. In some regions we’ve reinspected areas that look suspicious.

Nextgov: What do they find upon reinspection?

Groves: We’re getting spotty results. It’s not a slam-dunk one way or the other. When we go out and have a whole group of addresses deleted, sometimes everything looks fine, sometimes the ones that were deleted were duplicates, and sometimes they were deleted in error. There’s no typical result.

Nextgov: The idea of using the Internet to collect responses was proposed and rejected last year, despite conducting a pilot in 2000. What’s your opinion on allowing responses online? Is that something you think should be explored for 2020?

Groves: My son filled out a questionnaire for the 2000 census on the Internet. The decision to eliminate the Internet option for 2010 was made before I got here. I haven’t diagnosed that decision. I know the most commonly cited reason is concerns about security, which are indeed real and completely legitimate.

Looking forward, I can say I can’t imagine a 2020 census without some Internet use. At the same time, in the same breath we have to know that neither you nor I have any idea what the 2020 Internet is actually going to be capable of. When I say we must have an Internet option, I must admit I’m not quite sure myself. We have to take advantage of the technology; other countries already are. In 2006, 18 percent of Canadian households responded to their census on the Internet.

Nextgov: Do you plan to serve beyond next year? Would you like to be involved in the planning for the 2020 count?

Groves: I serve at the pleasure of the president and will serve as long as he is pleased with my service. I’m terribly interested in 2020 and also interested in innovation in all of the other surveys the Census Bureau does, thousands depending on how you count. The challenge of doing economic and social measurement in this country is never-ending. The rate of innovation lets us use technology in new and important ways; it can change the way we measure the country. That pace has to pick up in any organization like the Census Bureau. I’m terribly interested in being part of that.

The Suitland Files: Inside The Census Bureau (Part 2)

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

I apologize for taking so long to post the second half of the series that I started nearly two weeks ago, but I’ve been traveling extensively and things were getting quite hectic. Without further ado, I present to you an inside look into my meeting with top communications/public relations/press officials at the Census Bureau’s HQ in Washington, DC:

After making idle chit-chat about Europe, climate change, and Dr. Groves’ travel habits (like any good reporter, I try to extract information wherever possible) for more than half an hour with two private security guards inside their security booth on the perimeter of the Census Bureau’s fenced off headquarters (they refused to let me sit on a bench outside even though it was a warm day…), I was greeted by Derick Moore (who Steve Jost authorizes to make the official Census Bureau comments on MyTwoCensus posts) and Eun Kim, a new Census Bureau PR official who until very recently was a DC reporter for Gannett (hmmm…I wonder why she jumped over to the dark side…).

After clearing a round of metal detectors, I made my way up the elevator with my two aforementioned handlers. I was led to a waiting room where I made some chit chat with Derick and Eun who each told me about their careers in private sector media. (I pray every day that the allure of a solid government salary with good benefits doesn’t one day catch up with me too…) Steve Jost, chowing down on a sandwich and french fries, returned and had us follow him into his office. We all sat down, with me at the head of the table. With white hair and a bit of scruff on his face, Jost wasn’t the devilish and egotistical Nazi I expected he might be, but rather a jovial guy who immediately poked fun at my comments about him on this site. I replied that I made those comments when I was thousands of miles away in the safety of my own home, and I had never expected to be sitting down with him in person. But I had no regrets. My job is to be a watchdog, and a vigilant watchdog I will be.

Last to arrive at our meeting was Stephen Buckner, the mouthpiece of the 2010 Census (spokesman) who had the boyish charm of a high school quarterback. I’m sure that fifteen years ago he easily cruised his way to a victory during elections for homecoming king.

Jost was the leader of this round-table, so between french fries he started firing off all of the positive accomplishments that he and his team have made, while clearly avoiding any of the shortcomings. Here’s a rundown of the most interesting things that he said:

1. High unemployment rates and homeowners losing their homes to foreclosure will cause problems with the 2010 Census.

2. The hardest group to count is “young, unattached people” who move frequently, only have cell phones, are between jobs or studies, etc. — NOT immigrants or minorities, as one might expect from all of the Census Bureau’s hard-to-count group advertising…(MyTwoCensus will investigate this further in the near future!)

3. The Census Bureau has created a series of ads using pop music…get ready to find these on your TV screens starting in early January.

4. The participation rate in the Census increased for the first time since 1970 in 2000, despite general trends that fewer and fewer people are involved in civic activities like voting, performing jury duty, etc. Hopefully they can once again reverse this trend in 2010.

5. 95% of media consumers will be reached multiple times by 2010 Census advertising campaigns.

6. 53% of 2010 Census advertising is local. 47% is national. (Note: MyTwoCensus has not heard back yet as to whether our proposal to let the Census Bureau advertise for the 2010 Census on this site was accepted…)

7. Spoiler Alert: Sesame Street will be featuring a 2010 Census storyline via The Count and Rosita characters.

8. 2010.Census.gov was redesigned.

9. Though 173 forms of social media have been integrated with Census Bureau awareness efforts, no I-Phone Application has been created for the 2010 Census.

10. The 2010 Census forms will be mailed to all households in America (hopefully) on March 17, 2010. (Let’s hope drunken St. Patty’s day revelers don’t interfere with the efforts of the U.S. Postal Service…)

11. When selecting advertisements for the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau asks the creative directors of 12 different advertising firms to submit proposals via a “creative rumble.”

12. Hopefully there won’t be a repeat of the 2000 Advance Letter Debacle in 2010…

13. There will be extra Census Bureau staff in New Orleans to personally hand deliver 2010 Census questionnaires to every household.

14. The address canvassing portion of the 2010 Census provided data that there are approximately 134 million individual housing units in the US, down from original estimates of 140 million.

15. Many addresses in places like Las Vegas where construction on homes was started but never finished have been deleted from the 2010 Census rolls.

16. Very, very, very few people hired to work for the Census Bureau as temporary workers have quit during the 2009-2010 cycle, as other jobs are extremely scarce.

17. On November 17 at 9:30am, Dr. Robert M. Groves will be holding his next monthly “State of the 2010 Census” address…

I was given some handouts (drawings of a 2010 Census logo on a NASCAR racecar that will be unveiled soon), portions of powerpoints (that showed me data about levels of Census participation), and had the opportunity to see one of the hip-hop music based commercials that was recently shot in LA and will soon be airing nationwide. It was a smooth operation, and my questions were answered well. Were the answers necessarily honest? No. But did the PR team effectively do their jobs to give give off the image of squeaky clean 2010 Census communications operations? Absolutely.

Census trash will benefit baby feds

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

H/t to Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post for the following:

What will the government do with the millions of 2010 Census questionnaires once it’s done counting them next year? Shred them, sell the recyclable scraps and then give the money to federal childcare facilities, according to Census Director Robert Groves.

Groves shared the details during an interview broadcast Monday on Federal News Radio.

The National Processing Center in Indiana shreds and bales the paper once Census Bureau computers have scanned the data on the paper questionnaires, according to the agency. The General Services Administration then sells the bales of paper to contractors. The proceeds go back to the Commerce Department, which by law must use the money for environmental or employee wellness programs, including its child care facilities.

Incidentally, the Government Printing Office prints the 600 million questionnaires on 30 percent recycled paper. The Census Bureau has already printed roughly 425 million questionnaires for mailing next Spring.

MyTwoCensus Editorial: New Web Site Is A Step Forward, But Analytics Data Must Be Provided

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

A government agency with a beautiful web site is rare, and only when the Obama Administration redesigned and modernized WhiteHouse.gov were the American people able to get access to the sort of web site that should be standard for online government publications. Building off the success of the Obama ‘08 campaign’s successful use of social media, we are glad to see that the Census Bureau has, as of yesterday, gone above and beyond 21st century governmental web site norms by redesigning 2010.Census.gov. The new site embraces the Obama rhetoric that advocates interactivity and transparency even further than WhiteHouse.gov. 

From a practical perspective, one of the best features of this new site will be the ability to track census questionnaire response rates of individual states and locales as the data results come in. (We hope that Steve Jost and the communications team at the Census Bureau will make it a priority to update this data on a daily basis.) If nothing else, this feature will motivate states, municipalities, and other regional districts to improve their participation numbers before the non-response follow up period ends. This part of the new site will also encourage friendly rivalries between politicians, states, and municipalities which will likely result in free and positive press for the Census Bureau. We also hope that Dr. Groves and other bloggers for the 2010 Census site continue to provide new information at frequent intervals. 

While the idea of a new and improved web site is wonderful, if few people are viewing it, then it won’t have the impact it needs. MyTwoCensus urges the Census Bureau to release the analytics data detailing the number of unique users per day on its new web site, particularly as it compares to the analytics data of the old web site. We hope to see the numbers of viewers for each individual page of the web site as well. This is the only way that MyTwoCensus and other watchdog/non-profit organizations will be able to accurately track the success of the redesign. Additionally, if the Census Bureau’s site redesign becomes a statistical success, then perhaps other government agencies will follow suit by improving their interactivity and transparency, which will be a great step forward for American society.

 

It should be noted that the redesign of 2010.Census.gov was a combined effort of the Census Bureau with private sector advertising firm Draftfcb.

Groves worried about cost overruns in 2010 census

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

H/t to Hope Yen of the AP:

WASHINGTON — The head of the Census Bureau on Wednesday expressed concern about cost overruns in preparations for next year’s high-stakes count, saying he was taking steps to help prevent the expenses from ballooning further.

Appearing before a House panel, Robert Groves said poor planning had resulted in added costs in the address canvassing operation that were $88 million higher than the original estimate of $356 million, an overrun of 25 percent.

Groves said the agency had made some faulty assumptions in how quickly it could get work done. The agency was now re-evaluating budget estimates for the entire census operation, which is projected to cost roughly $15 billion.

“Those budget overruns are intolerable,” he told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee.

MyTwoCensus Editorial: Dr. Groves, You’ve Got Your Stats Wrong This Time

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Today, the Washington Post reported the following:

Robert Groves said the bureau is trying to determine whether it is feasible to require a second security check on job candidates whose fingerprints cannot be read the first time they are run through the FBI database. The bureau is spending $100 million this year checking fingerprints, the first time it has done so for temporary workers.

Last week, the GAO said it estimated that more than200 temporary employees with unreadable prints might have criminal records that should have disqualified them from being hired.

Groves said people whose prints are hard to decipher tend to be older workers whose ridges have worn down with age or manual workers whose jobs have made their prints less sharp. The average age of temporary census workers with unreadable prints was 63 for men and 55 for women.

While it may be true that the fingerprints of older workers are more difficult to read, this should not take away from the fact that no individuals with disqualifying criminal records should be hired to work for the census. And who’s to say that there are not older individuals who have criminal records? MyTwoCensus.com disagrees with Dr. Groves’ efforts to brush off the GAO’s findings as inconsequential or overstated.  In fact, we suspect that individuals with criminal records would know how to easily go undetected by the Census Bureau’s lax fingerprinting procedures, a topic that we will cover in greater depth in the near future.

Interview with Robert Goldenkoff of the Government Accountability Office

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

On Friday, October 9, 2009 I interviewed Robert Goldenkoff, who has worked for more than 20 years at the Government Accountability Office and currently serves as the GAO’s Director of Strategic Issues. One of his many areas of focus is the 2010 Census, which the GAO defined as a high risk operation in a March 2008 report. On Thursday October 8, Mr. Goldenkoff faced questions at a Senate hearing investigating the 2010 Census. In the following interview he discusses the recent fingerprinting problems that he shared with Congress and many other long-term issues with the decennial census.

SRM: What led to the discovery that there could have been criminals hired by the Census Bureau?

RG: We’re looking at all aspects of the Census Bureau’s readiness for the 2010 Census. The decennial census is so huge that we’re focusing a lot of our work on areas where the Census Bureau doesn’t have a lot of experience, where they haven’t done that particular operation before. One of those areas is fingerprinting. In the past, at least for the 2000 Census, they relied only on a name background check. That was why we included fingerprinting as part of our review, because it was a new operation. They’ve been doing the census pretty much the same way  – obviously technology changes – but, the fundamental approach to the 2010 Census is very similar to say the 1970 Census. So if there’s going to be an issue, it’s more likely in something that they’ve never done before.

SRM: Why is your office investigating this rather than the Commerce Department Inspector General’s office? Or were you working together on this?

RG: We are two independent agencies, two different reporting authorities. We do work together, collaborate and coordinate our work just so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. Sometimes we work in the same areas and other times we work in different areas, depending on facts and circumstances.

SRM: Where did you get the figure that you reported to Congress that 200 criminals could have been hired by the 2010 Census? And can you clarify what “could have been hired” means?

RG: It’s strictly based on the percentages. There were 162,000 people in total hired for address canvassing. 1,800 passed the name background check but their fingerprints revealed that they had criminal records. Of those, 750 were disqualified for census employment, because their criminal records were such that they were ineligible for census employment. All we did was project those same ratios for the 35,700 people who went through the name background check but whose fingerprints could not be read. So it’s strictly a projection. It’s unfortunate that the reporting of this was not always accurate or perhaps sensationalized it. We’re not saying that 200 criminals did work on the census, but we’re saying that based on that projection it’s possible.

SRM: During the summer, I was contacted by a man named David Allburn who runs a company called National Fingerprints, LLC, which can be found at NationalFingerprints.com. His firm placed a bid with the Census Bureau to receive a contract to handle the fingerprinting of employees, because right now prospective employees are fingerprinted by other Census Bureau employees who are not well trained in fingerprinting. David informed me that someone who is an experienced criminal would know that it’s very simple to smudge your fingerprints and make them unreadable by simply pressing your hand too hard on the paper when your fingers are being rolled in the ink. The Census Bureau chose not to use David’s company but rather to conduct the operation on their own without outside help. Of course part of the reason David called me originally because he was upset that his company wasn’t chosen for the contract, but he was also concerned that the 2010 Census operations would be infiltrated by criminals. At first I figured David could be overexaggerating this scenario, but now I know that he was absolutely right. So I’m wondering, do you have any idea why David’s method was rejected?

RG: No idea.

SRM: I’ve also heard from many sources that after people have been hired by the Census Bureau and started to work, their criminal background check reports came in later, and only then, after they already had access to a significant amount of data, were they fired. Why did this happen?

RG: I don’t know. Our point to all of this was not to scare people or anything like that. Our point was to make it clear to the Bureau that they need to have a better policy, or at least have a better policy for those people whose fingerprints can’t be read. With so many people working on the census, even if only a small percentage of fingerprints are flawed, you’re still talking about a substantial number of people.

SRM: Has the Census Bureau done anything to try to fix this flawed system?

RG: It is important to point out though that the Bureau has acknowledged that they have a problem with this and they are taking steps, improving training for example, to improve how the fingerprints are actually captured. Moisture is an issue with the quality of prints. The remaining issue is what to do about people whose fingerprints can’t be read.

SRM: I’m also wondering, can social security numbers be used as an element of background checks? Having sat for the employment exams for the 2010 Census, I know that it is mandatory to provide your social security number at that early stage.

RG: That already might be used, but I’m not sure. But people can change their social security numbers or use fraudulent social security numbers. That’s why it’s not as reliable. As we saw, just  the name background check can’t be the only tool used as criminals can get past that system.

SRM: Who do you hold accountable for these errors?

RG: This is something that the Census Bureau had no experience with. It’s clearly something that the Census Bureau and its parent agency, the Commerce Department, need to deal with. We’re not out to get anyone or point fingers. We want to see a successful census. I think the Census Bureau has acknowledged there’s a problem and they are going to work on it – and we are going to keep tabs on them. There are some smaller field operations coming up, but the big one is non-response follow up in the spring, to follow up with non-respondents. That’s going to be around 600,000 people hired. So we’re going to watch the Bureau’s progress in improving fingerprinting abilities.

SRM: On a related issue, I wrote about how the Census Bureau’s three Data Capture Centers may have similar human resources issues. Because, for example, in Baltimore, the Data Capture Center is run by contractor Lockheed Martin, who subcontracted the hiring efforts to Computer Sciences Corporation, I am wondering if the same rigid hiring standards that Census Bureau employees are subject to apply in these cases? I was told by Stephen Buckner, spokesman for the Census Bureau, that these employees are subject to the same standards, but a couple of loopholes that I noticed are that employees at these centers are not subject to drug tests or that because of time lags, people who undergo background investigations now might not start work for six months, meaning that they could potentially develop criminal records in the interim period. Can you address these issues?

RG: I’m not familiar with the specifics when contractors are involved.

SRM: What are the greatest challenges for the 2010 Census from your perspective?

RG: I’m glad you asked that because what we’ve been reporting on is much bigger than fingerprints. That’s certainly an issue, but the Bureau has other things they need to be concerned about as well. Speaking positively, the GAO has a high risk list, and we put the Census Bureau on this list in March 2008 because of weaknesses in the Census Bureau’s IT management, problems with the handheld computers, the difficulties they were having in coming up with the total cost of the decennial census, the fact that they did not conduct a full dress rehearsal, and on top of all that time was running out. And we put the decennial census on our high risk list because it’s a critical statistical program for the nation. Using March 2008 as an anchor point, we have seen that the Bureau has made a lot of progress in terms of risk mitigation. There is certainly a lot more work to be done but we are also encouraged by a lot of the improvements that we’ve been seeing. Certainly it was important to have a president appointed and senate confirmed Director (Robert M. Groves), so it’s certainly important that the top leadership is now firmly in place. We’re encouraged by some of the advisors that Dr. Groves has brought in who have experience from the 2000 Census. And we’re also encouraged by the fact that the Census Bureau acknowledges that they have a problem. The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one. But some of the areas that still concern us: IT management, requirements and testing plans have not been finalized, it’s difficult to track progress because of vague metrics, and some of the IT systems face tight implementation time-frames. Of all the IT systems, the one that we’re most concerned about is the paper-based operational control system (PBOCS).

SRM: Can you elaborate on that?

RG: That was the program that was put in place when they abandoned the handheld computers for non-response follow-up. So PBOCS basically controls the office workflow. There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of nailing down requirements and testing in the short time remaining. Basically, they have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it before it needs to go live.

SRM: There was a Census employee named Bill Sparkman who was murdered about a month ago. Is your office involved in that investigation?

RG: No, not at all.

SRM: Do you have any comments on the recent decision for the Census Bureau to sever its ties with ACORN?

RG: The Bureau just needs to make sure that it has adequate guidance so that it can make a determination as to who they should partner with and who the shouldn’t.

Update: More Languages In Advance Letters

Friday, October 9th, 2009

If you’re interested in reading more information about the recent policy shift at the Census Bureau to distribute advance letters about the 2010 Census in multiple languages, check out the following documents:

Advance Letter from Robert M. Groves in multiple languages

Letter from Robert M. Groves explaining policy changes to leaders of minority organizations.

Criminals Possibily Hired to Conduct Census

Friday, October 9th, 2009

As I reported two weeks ago when I questioned Dr. Robert Groves at a press conference that he held at the National Press Club, criminals have been hired to work for the 2010 Census:

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (UPI) — Errors by U.S. Census Bureau employees could have resulted in 200 people with criminal records being hired for canvassing, a government report said.

The Government Accountability Office said Census Bureau employees improperly fingerprinted thousands of people as part of background checks for workers hired to interact with the public door to door, The Hill reported Thursday.

The GAO report expressed concern that the checks performed on improperly fingerprinted employees were incomplete.

“It is possible that more than 200 people with unclassifiable prints had disqualifying criminal records but still worked and had contact with the public during address canvassing,” the GAO’s Robert Goldenkoff told a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday.

Goldenkoff said the bureau’s training program was a reason for the improper fingerprints, adding that the bureau “will refine instruction manuals and provide remediation training on proper procedures” to prevent a recurrence.

Senate Census panel asks tough questions about 2010 count

Thursday, October 8th, 2009
H/t to Max Cacas of Federal News Radio for the following update on yesterday’s Senate meeting:

The clock continues to tick down to the April 1st start of the 2010 Census, and a Senate oversight subcommittee continues to focus on efforts for an accurate count of the nation’s population next year.

By Max Cacas
Reporter
FederalNewsRadio

With less than 6 months to go before the start of the 2010 decennial census, officials are still coping with uncertainty surrounding the next constitutionally-mandated count of the nation’s population.

On Wednesday, the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, which has oversight over the U.S. Census Bureau, conducted its latest hearing on what will likely be one of the most costly censuses in history.

One of the areas of concern says Robert Goldenkopf, director of Strategic Issues with the Government Accountability Office, is all the uncertainty that underlies the on-again, off again planning for the 2010 census. GAO named the census to its “high risk list” last year because of:

Weakness in its IT management, problems with handheld computers used to collect data, and uncertainty over the final cost of the census.

Doctor Robert Groves, the new census director, says the bureau is generally making good progress toward resolving a long list of problems related to the 2010 census, but says one thing keeping him up late at night is concern about just how many Americans will fill out their forms, and get them back in the mail as soon as possible.

The behavior of the American public in March and April of next year is a big uncertainty in regards to that. Scores of millions of dollars will be spent following up with houses that don’t return the mail questionnaire. Its important to hit that target, that estimate well.

Groves told the panel that the vacancy rate of homes due to the recession, and related home foreclosures, could complicate the effort to have as many people as possible return their census forms in the first round of the count between the first week of April and mid-May.

Director Groves also told the panel that even at this late date, the Census Bureau continues to develop software to handle the paper-based “Non-Response Followup” stage of the census. This was a part of the census that had been slated to be performed using a highly automated system in conjunction with the controversial hand-held computers. Last year, census officials decided not to use the handhelds for this portion of the census count because development of the automation system was lagging far behind other portions of the census.

Lawmakers continued to press for the use of the Internet and web-based tools to speed the count and reduce costs. But Groves told Senator John McCain (R.-Az.) that it is too late in preparations for the count to integrate web-based data gathering in the 2010 census. Groves did say that in August of next year, as the formal census count is being concluded, there is a small-scale test planned to gauge the possibility of one day using the web for the 2020 census.

Under questioning, Groves also revealed that as recently as 5 years ago, there was a proposal that a web-based census follow-up pilot program be conducted in college campus dormitories during the 2010 count to test the viability of using new technologies to improve the count, but said the idea was never formally made a part of next year’s population tally. On Wednesday, several lawmakers, including McCain, expressed support for the possibility of short-term legislation that would provide funding and support for a dorm-based pilot program for the census.

Kudos Dr. Groves and Secretary Locke

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Last week, we wrote about trouble brewing in California over language issues on questionnaires, but fortunately the problem has been resolved due to the swift and effective action of Census Director Dr. Robert M. Groves and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. The changes that have been made are detailed in the following letter obtained by MyTwoCensus.com:

October 5, 2009

Dear Secretary Locke and Director Groves:

In my September 28 letter to Secretary Locke, I shared my concern about sending an English-only Advance Letter.  I am pleased that a change has been made in policy to incorporate a prominent postscript on how to get language assistance in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian.  This decision will provide Californians the added opportunity to be counted as residents.

I would like to thank you for the prompt change in policy and I look forward to working with each of you to ensure all Californians are counted.

Respectfully,

Ditas Katague
Director, 2010 Census Statewide Outreach



Press Release from Senator Tom Carper’s office

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

FOR RELEASE: Oct. 6, 2009

CONTACT:  Bette Phelan (202) 224-2441

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs

HEARING: “2010 Census – A Status Update of Key Decennial Operations.”

WASHINGTON (Oct. 6, 2009) – Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, will hold a hearing Wednesday, October 7 at 3:00 p.m. titled “2010 Census: A Status Update of Key Decennial Operations.”

With less than six months before Census Day 2010, this hearing will provide a status update of key decennial operations, estimated to cost more than $14.7 billion.

Census Director Dr. Robert Groves, in his first appearance before the committee since his confirmation, will provide updates on the Bureau’s recent completion of its address canvassing operation; the progress of the Bureau’s testing of key decennial information technology and operational systems; the use of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act spending to enhance outreach to hard-to-count communities; and the Bureau’s response to program and operational challenges identified by both GAO and the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General.

WHEN:Wednesday, October 7 at 3:00 p.m.

WHERE: 342 Dirksen Senate Office Building

WITNESSES:

The Honorable Robert M. Groves, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce

Todd Zinser, Inspector General, U.S. Department of Commerce

Robert Goldenkoff, Director, Strategic Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office

Government Will Not End Raids Prior To 2010 Census

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Check out the following little discussed story from the Associated Press that shows the Obama Administration taking an immigrant unfriendly position:

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the 2010 census six months away, the Commerce Department said Thursday it won’t seek a halt to immigrationraids as it did in the previous census in hopes of improving participation in hard-to-count communities.

In a statement, the department said it is committed to an accurate count of U.S. residents, including both legal and illegal immigrants. Spokesman Nick Kimball said officials will not ask the Homeland Security Department to stop large-scale immigration raids during the high stakes count that begins April 1.

That position is a departure from the one taken in the 2000 census, when immigration officials at the request of the Census Bureau informally agreed not to conduct raids. The bureau two years ago asked DHS to hold off again in 2010, but that was rejected by the Bush administration, which said it would continue to enforce federal laws.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department echoed that position and said it would not be revisiting the matter.

”Our job is to count every resident once, and in the right place, and that’s what we do,” Kimball said. ”All the information the Census Bureau collects is protected by law and will not be shared with any other agency. Neither the Commerce Department nor the Census Bureau will ask DHS to refrain from exercising their lawful authority.”

It remained unclear what Commerce’s stance might have on the likelihood of immigration raids next year. In recent months, the government has said it was seeking to shift enforcement efforts more toward criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants as well as cases in which an illegal immigrant may pose a safety threat to the community.

The Commerce statement comes as the Census Bureau enters the final stretch of preparations for the decennial count, which is used to apportion House seats and distribute nearly $450 billion in federal aid. With an effort to overhaul U.S. immigration laws expected to take place sometime next year, Census Director Robert Groves has said he’s particularly worried that tensions over immigration will deter people from participating in the count.

2010 Census Operational Briefing Transcript and Commentary

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Editor’s Note: Last week, I live-blogged Census Director Robert M. Groves’ first monthly press conference to discuss the 2010 Census. I was able to ask a question to Dr. Groves at the meeting, but unfortunately, it wasn’t answered in the comprehensive way that I’d hoped for, in part due to a poor telephone connection. The transcript from this press conference is below.  Starting tomorrow, MyTwoCensus will be publishing the results of our investigation into what we believe are lax human resources procedures at America’s three 2010 Census data capture centers.

National Press Club

September 23, 2009

Stephen Buckner:  Good morning everyone.  My name is Stephen Buckner.  I’m in the Public Information Office at the U.S. Census Bureau.  I’d like to welcome everybody today to our first 2010 Census Operational Press Briefing.

To run down how the day is going to proceed a little bit, this will be the first in a series of operational press briefings of which the Census Bureau will provide, as we get closer and closer to the 2010 Census – as of October 1st, we’ll be about six months out.

Right now we’re currently looking at doing them every month.  As we get closer to the census, we’ll be looking at increasing frequency as operational milestones approach.

Today we’re lucky to have the Director of the Census Bureau, Robert Groves, who will be talking about his assessment of the 2010 Census operations, both from our address canvassing operation and looking ahead in terms of some of the challenges we have heading into the 2010 Census.

So after his presentation, I’ll come back up and will be moderating a question-and-answer period, of which we have here in the room as well as on our telephone line that media are listening into.  So we’ll alternate between in the room and on the telephone.

So if you could just hold your questions until after the presentation, then we’ll have ample time to do that.  For the television in the room, we’ll have media availability afterwards where you can do interviews with the director as well.

At this time I’d like to introduce our Director, Dr. Robert Groves.

Robert Groves:  Thank you, Stephen.  Good morning.  I’m going to have two parts of my comments today and then take questions.  The first part is really just an update on where we are.  As Stephen said, we’re six months out.  The April 1, 2010, date is looming ahead of us.

And we are on target for the major operations that plan this event, which is a gigantic mobilization of people and resources to enumerate the American public.

We have just completed over the summer an effort called Address Canvassing whereby hundreds of thousands of workers visited every address in the U.S. to verify that we knew where it was, that we had an appropriate mailing address, and we entered those addresses into a massive file that we call the Master Address File.

That is a big milestone in the planning of the census, because it’s from that address file that we mail out millions of forms.  That was completed on time.  We’re examining the file right now.  It’s a big deal for us to get this right.  And within a matter of weeks, certainly at our next conference, we can give you evaluations of that.

In just a couple of weeks we’ll do a follow-up operation on that.  One of the problems in doing a census in a country like ours, when we have large multi-unit structures, things we call group quarters, things like dormitories and assisted living facilities and things like that, that it’s easy to miss one of the residents of those things unless we make sure we have the address information and the characteristics of the units correctly documented.

We’re doing something special this decade to cover those well and we’re doing a big operation just in a couple of weeks visiting all those around the country.  We are in the middle of opening about 500 local census offices spread throughout the country.  These are small offices where enumerators at the last phase of our work will be supervised and trained and guided in their work.  That’s on schedule, on time. We are printing questionnaires.  We are using a good portion of the printing capability of this country.  We will print 183 million questionnaires, plus 15 million bilingual questionnaires, getting them ready.  This is going on right now.  You can sort of feel the presses whirring away.  We’re on schedule on that as well.

We have opened three very large processing centers; one in Baltimore, one in Phoenix, and one outside of Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana that will receive these forms and scan them in and extract the electronic data from those questionnaires.  That’s going pretty well.

And we’re in the middle of opening up call centers that will be used, incoming call centers, for questionnaire assistance, when people need it.  We’re also at the first stages of a pretty massive communications campaign that we could talk about later, if you want.

So to sum up that, things are looking pretty good.  All the steps that need to be in place have been done at the right time.  We have much to do.  This is a massive effort.  And we’re happy to share with you our progress on that.

And indeed that takes me to my second major point.  I pledged when I was nominated to run a transparent Census Bureau.  And what I did following that pledge is also promise that I would do an evaluation, a personal evaluation of where the Census Bureau planning effort was.  I’ve completed that.  I’ve reported to the Secretary of Commerce those results and just yesterday we had a hearing on the Hill that reported that.

And I want to report through you to the American public the same sort of assessment, because I’ve promised it.  And there’s sort of three parts to this:  One is, as a survey methodologist, comparing the design of the 2000 Census to the design of the 2010 Census.  And here the headline I’m very comfortable to say is really that I would prefer the 2010 design.  And I’ll tell you why that’s the case.

This is a short form-only census.  If people don’t understand that term, you can look inside your packet and see an image of the questionnaire that we will send out.  This is one of the shortest questionnaires we’ve done in a decennial census.  Why are we doing it this way?  We’re doing it this way because we learned in prior decades that long questionnaires generates more burden on the American public, and cooperation, participation in the census goes down.

So we’re trying to reflect the busyness of the American public’s lives and reducing the questions to the bare minimum.  We’re very hopeful that will act to increase public participation.

Secondly, as some of you know, we’re sending out for the first time bilingual questionnaires to targeted areas where Spanish-only speakers are prevalent.  On one half — I think you may have that in your packet, too.  On one half of the questionnaire is an English version, and the other half is a Spanish version.  Our research over the years has shown us that that improves participation in Spanish-only households.  And that’s an important and growing component of the country and we’re proud of that design.  I think it’s a preferable design to the 2000 design.

Thirdly, in a large portion of the areas, if you don’t turn in your questionnaire the first time, you’ll get a replacement questionnaire in the mail, just as kind of a gentle nudge that you haven’t done your part to make the census successful.

We’ve studied this process in survey methodology for some decades, and that works.  Most people who don’t turn in the questionnaire immediately aren’t deliberately doing so.  They just forgot about it.  They put it over on the desk on the side with other papers they have to work on.  And that replacement questionnaire helps.

Thirdly, there are things that are going to make this a stronger census if they work properly.  We have a couple of questions on the questionnaire that address a problem that we have and that’s relevant to today’s world, and that is it’s a question about whether there are people staying in your home who also have a residence elsewhere.

You and I both know we’re going through a recession in this country where houses are doubled up in ways that are unusual.  That question is going to be an important way to help us evaluate and follow up to help people follow the rules of census residency appropriately.  And we have another question about whether the people living here also might stay somewhere else at another point.

So those questions should improve the differential undercount of the 2010 Census.

There are a couple of other operations that should improve the master address file.  And for those of you following this story routinely, you know that the Census Bureau was given about a billion dollars in stimulus funds that we’re using to good goals, I believe, in improving the advertising, the paid advertising program and a massive outreach for partnerships at a very local area to improve our access to trusted voices in small communities that have the credibility we need to tell people that it’s an important thing to do.  It’s really easy, and it’s a safe thing to do for communities that have those concerns.

So on this first part, if I as a survey scientist, put the design features of the 2000 design next to the 2010 design, I’m really quite comfortable that we have planned in this country a better census than we executed in 2000.

And then there are two sets of challenges in my professional judgment that the Census Bureau faces.  I want to go through those briefly, by way of informing the country of those judgments.

First, on the internal side, we have a new leadership team at Census.  As you know, the terminated development of hand-held computers for non-responsive follow-up produced a change of leadership.  This is a new team.  It’s a team that’s structured quite well in terms of identifying management risks and planning risks.  And that’s a great benefit to them.  To bolster that team, I will continue the use of a set of outside advisors that I’ve brought in when I entered.  This includes Former Director Ken Prewitt and Principal Associate Director John Thompson, as well as drawing on Nancy Potok, Former Principal Associate Director, now the Deputy Undersecretary for Economic Affairs.

The second thing that worries me about the Census Bureau is something that I worry about for all federal statistical systems and that is there’s been a set of key retirements of senior mathematical statisticians.  This is true of a lot of federal agencies.  This is a weakness I’m worried about.  And my reaction on that, too, is to bring in advice from the outside when we need it on those sorts of matters.

Third, the problem with the hand-held development led to the Census Bureau taking on a big programming development operation.  We’re in the middle of that.  It’s a group of people working night and day to finish up a set of software that we need for the non-response follow-up phase.  Things are on schedule on that.  But the schedule is very tight.  We’ve developed a set of outside review groups, who have been giving me advice on that.  We’ve made some changes in that process with the intent of integrating their activities with others and addressing IT security issues.

We’ll continue to do that.  Fourth, I’ve referred to already, I can’t wait to see the quality of the Master Address File.  I’ll be able to tell you about that in a few weeks.  That’s an important building block.  And, finally, I’m worried and concerned about cost estimation and cost control in the Census Bureau; but this, too, is a problem shared by many federal agencies.

We’re beefing this up with more real time data to watch the process of spend-down of our rather large budget.  There are four principal challenges in these external challenges that I want to mention.  I think the most important thing for you to remember is that the behavior of the American public is the keystone of a successful census.

Estimating what percentage of American households will complete their questionnaire and mail it back in is a very important burden and challenge for the Census Bureau right now.  For every one percentage point reduction in the mail return rate, scores of millions of dollars are going to be spent by the taxpayers to send people out and knock on doors.

For the American public who are worried about the national deficit, here’s something you can do.  If you return your questionnaire, you save the federal government money.  And I can tell you right now I would be overjoyed as the Census Bureau to give back money to the U.S. Treasury because the mail response rate was overwhelmingly large.

This is a big challenge.  It’s a challenge that we’re focused on very intently.  But we need your help.  As voices to the American public we need the help of all social, political and religious leaders to get the word out that the census is a nonpartisan event.

It’s a safe event for everyone to participate in, and its success depends on the behavior of each of us.  That’s the biggest challenge.  There are some other challenges that are worth noting.  The new media environment is a challenge for us.  The blogosphere produces hourly minute-by-minute news articles on the Census Bureau by people from around the world.

Getting the facts out about the census is a challenge in that environment.  We’ve organized an internal group to work on that.  We have Web-based media outreach plans that will be launched within the next few weeks.  Thirdly, the same environment challenges our desire to remain a nonpartisan apolitical organization, and to run a nonpartisan census.

There are tugs on us daily to get into the political fray.  It’s my firm belief that the basis of credibility of the census rests on the belief of the American public that we are nonpartisan and we’re apolitical and we’re a professional statistical bureau, and I need to fight that battle daily, I can tell you.

Finally, we are not collecting data via the Internet in 2010.  It’s an important story to get out.  But we expect that at one point or another someone will put up a Web site that will wrongly say that they’re from the Census Bureau and attempt to deceive the American public and collect data from them.  We’ve established a group that’s going to look for this, troll the net looking for these things and bring down these sites as fast as we can.

We don’t want that deception to harm the basis of the census.  So those are my remarks.  I’m going to make four changes to the census design that are really looking forward to the 2020 Census.  They are that we will build what’s called a Master Trace file that allows us to track the characteristics of cases throughout their whole lifecycle.

This is really a cost/quality trade-off tool, research tool.  We will mount a small Internet re-interview study for purposes of studying how people respond to Web versus paper.

We will mount in one fashion a post-hoc administrative records census.  We’ll match census records to the administrative databases we’ve acquired in cooperation with other federal agencies to see, if we did an administrative records census, say, in 2020 what kinds of people would be covered and what kinds of people would be missed, what kinds of data would be well reported in the records, which would not.

Then finally the fourth change that we’re making is I’ve looked at the tool that we call Census Coverage Measurement.  This is a large sample survey that’s used to measure the quality of the census.

And when I look at the design of that and read evaluations from other scientists on that design, there are features of that that I’d like to improve.  I think we can do better on that design.  We’re beefing up the measurement and the match procedures on that tool at the risk or at the cost of reducing the sample size of that evaluative tool.  So those are my remarks.  I’m happy to hear questions, if you have them.

Question:  Could you discuss a little bit your decision to sever ties with ACORN?  Was it the video, or was that the last straw?  Or could you give us your thinking on that?

Robert Groves:  Let me first set the context.  I think it’s important to understand what our goals are in this thing we call the “Partnership Program.”  Every western country has learned that doing a census in a diverse country requires outreach to trusted community members.  Running the census out of Washington D.C., running our census out of Washington D.C. alone doesn’t work.

So the effective way to get participation from diverse American publics is to use voices in their community that understand the facts of the census, the importance of it, the simplicity of it, and the safety of it, and to communicate that message directly to their relevant groups.

ACORN was one of those groups.  These are groups that are not paid.  These are volunteer groups.  Their commitment to us is that they’ll help us get our message out.  That’s about it.  They are not paid employees.  We don’t have contracts with them.

We’re going to seek to have over 100,000 of these groups around the country.  I’ve been traveling the country, talking to some of these groups and they are fundamentally good ideas.  These can be as small as a few-block neighborhood, a community neighborhood organization that’s worried about the beauty of the neighborhood.  But they have ties to the houses in that neighborhood.

Now, how do we decide who is a good and who is a not good partner?  Our decision on that is the effectiveness of their communication to one of the groups that we care about.

We’re most interested in what we’ve labeled as hard-to-count groups.  These are people who normally participate in the census at lower rates.  And through our studies over the years we have a fair idea about the characteristics of those people.

ACORN served people that fall in those groups.  We care about those people participating in the census.  But when one of our partners produces problems in the overall mission of the census, then we have to rethink that.

I just came back from the Chicago region, and I talked to partnership specialists, and they were telling me:  The existence of ACORN as a partner and the negative press and the actions of the local groups affiliated with ACORN were actually impeding their getting other partner agreements in Chicago.

So I want to carefully say that the people served by ACORN are important to us.  We need their participation in the census.  The press on ACORN and the actions of these local affiliates of ACORN became a distraction for us and it was actually hurting our overall effort of getting the census facts out.

Question:  I have a question and – Sheila Buzzard with Fox News.  You talk about transparency as one of the very important things for your Bureau.  What assurance, talking about ACORN, can you give to the American public that your efforts will not be motivated politically, because you said that you get pressure every day?

Robert Groves:  My efforts at what?  I heard your question but I don’t understand your question.  What do you mean by “efforts”?

Question:  Your efforts and your cooperation with local organizations such as ACORN in your work.

Robert Groves:  Let me say a bit about the Census Bureau and what we’re all about.  This is an organization that is explicitly apolitical.  So I am protected and all my colleagues are protected by certain legal infrastructure that gives us great courage and strength.  If political officials want to see data that we have collected confidentially and we’ve given a pledge of confidentiality to the person who gave us the data, we can refuse this.  In fact, if we don’t refuse it, I can go to prison for five years and I’ll have a $250,000 fine and all my colleagues have that.

We take that really seriously, because we also have a culture and a belief system that is completely consistent with that.  We know that our business, our organization succeeds only if the American people believe the numbers we put out.  I know of countries in the world where there have been political interference into numbers from statistical agencies and the people lose faith in those numbers.  Rebuilding the faith in those numbers takes decades.

I took this position not because I needed a job, but because I believed this thing very strongly and I want to strengthen that feature of the Census Bureau.  So up and down our organization, we are apolitical, nonpartisan, and we are fiercely so.

Question:  Were you already – just a follow-up.  Were you already thinking of dropping ACORN when the video came out?

Robert Groves:  We’re evaluating – we’re constantly evaluating things.  One thing about statisticians is they do something and then they stop and they say:  How well did we just do with what we did?  We’re obsessed by this.  We’re always evaluating our partnership effectiveness.  We have partnership specialists that reach out to individual partners to help them succeed.  And that is also an evaluation step.  So it’s an ongoing process.

Stephen Buckner:  We need to take one from the phone.  We’ll open up the phone line for our first question, please.

Operator:  First question is from Amos Brown, WLTC Radio.

Question:  Good morning, Director.  A couple of questions from the heartland of America - Indianapolis.  I heard you talking about the importance of these smaller groups working with the census, what you all are calling Localized Complete Count Committees.

But here in Indianapolis there’s been a lot of confusion and a lack of direction from census staff in terms of what are the responsibilities of these Complete Count Committees.  When census employees have gone into neighborhoods, the neighborhoods think they’re coming on behalf of the city Complete Count Committee.  That’s one issue.

The other thing is it just seems – and this will be my fourth decennial working with the Census Bureau.  It just seems that there’s a lot more confusion and disconnect this time.  As you evaluate how this census is working, how are you evaluating the level of communication out at the local level, out in the real heartland of America?

Robert Groves:  Well, thank you for the question, first of all.  And, secondly, I’m glad for the information.  This is also a useful way to evaluate how we’re doing.

The risk – one comment on what you’re saying, we do run a risk when we have hundreds of thousands of partners that the message get conflicting unintentionally.  We’re on this problem.  It’s a trade-off decision between reaching different groups and having the same group reached by multiple people.  It’s one that we’re constantly monitoring something that concerns us.  On this difference between the Complete Count Committee and other census activities, let me do by way of a little definition.

Complete Count Committees are often established by local communities, often have government officials and community leaders populating them as a formal way to get their message down and sometimes they sponsor their own events to get the word out from the census and it sounds like in this particular case there’s a little mixed messages going on.  And thanks for the input.

Question:  My name is Matt [Inaudible] from the Tribune.  Senator Bob Bennett introduced legislation last week that would add a question to your form that would require the person to identify whether they were in the country legally or not.

The purpose of this, he said, would be to back those people who were here illegally out of the count for apportionment purposes.  He thinks that’s inappropriate.  My question to you is, is it feasible to add a question to the form at this time?  And, two, do you think that’s a good idea?

Stephen Buckner:  We’ll take this question, then go back to the phone lines.  Dr. Groves.

Robert Groves:  First, I think as I said when I was doing my introduction, a lot of the forms are already printed and that train has left for the 2010 Census clearly.

The good idea, question I think is best answered by going back to history.  Why are we doing what we are doing? In March of 1790, Congress passed the Census Act.  The Census Act said that the census, the decennial census every 10 years should count everyone living in the country where they usually reside.  That applied to every census since 1790.

The proposal to back out noncitizens where you could imagine – well, you could imagine such a census design, would break that tradition that we’ve had these many, many decades.  Whether it’s a good idea or not, I think the answer to that is that if you read the Constitution carefully, you will see that the decennial census is done in a manner that Congress, by law, shall direct.  It is a creature of Congress in the Constitution.

So the introduction of new laws about how the census might be done, if you study the history of this, come up routinely.  They tend to come up a lot around the decennial census time.  That’s true.  But they come out – they come up throughout the history.  This is the proper role of Congress to discuss these things.  But it would be a change from our history of many, many, many decades.

Question:  Do you think it would impact who would respond?

Robert Groves:  I have no idea how people would react because of that question.  That’s a really hard question to answer.  I don’t know.

Stephen Buckner:  Just for clarification, we do not ask the legal status of an individual on any census survey or decennial census.

Any questions on the phone?

Question:  I have a follow-up.  You spoke about all these addresses and the completion of the process of collecting all the addresses.  Did ACORN work in that effort?  And if so how confident are you in acting –

Robert Groves:  ACORN didn’t work on that effort.  All those employees were paid census employees.  They were screened through FBI checks about their criminal background.  They were trained in how to do their work.  They were supervised.  There were quality control procedures, and if they didn’t follow those procedures they were terminated.  They took this oath that I just described to you.  They were held to that oath, because we treat their work as subject to the same confidentiality law as when people knock on doors and ask questions of people.

Question:  Deborah Berry with Gannett Washington Bureau.  Senator Ritter and Shelby and have raised concerns about sampling.  How do you balance that with the concerns raised by civil rights groups that many groups, particularly minorities, are undercounted?

Robert Groves:  Well, we at the Census Bureau must do our work under the law as passed by Congress, as acted on and interpreted by the Supreme Court.  And for the 2010 Census, it’s absolutely crystal clear what our guidance is.  The Supreme Court ruling that said that statistical adjustment, I think that’s what you mean by sampling, statistical adjustment of the census for reapportionment purposes is not permitted.

We are not planning, and I testified on this, and Secretary Locke is very clear on this as well, we’re not planning – we’re not prepared to adjust the census for any purpose.  We’re not planning it for reapportionment or redistributing.

Question:  Meredith Simmons, Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau.  You said you faced pressure every day to politicize the census in some way.  Could you be more specific about –

Robert Groves:  Gee, I hope I didn’t say that.

Question:  I those that’s what I heard.

Robert Groves:  I hope I didn’t use those words.  I’m glad you asked your question.  But finish your question and let me respond to it.

Question:  Maybe you used the word “tug.”  But could be a little bit more specific about what sort of tugs you’re experiencing and how you respond to them?

Robert Groves:  This isn’t unusual, first of all.  And you would only know that if you – it would be an interesting exercise in your spare time to go back to your paper, your medium 10 years ago and read the stories that your colleagues wrote.  The same thing happened 10 years ago.  The same thing happened 20 years ago.  The census is really important.  It really is.  It’s important because we reapportion the House of Representatives on it.  We distribute over $400 billion a year based on the figures.  We redraw the portrait of the United States every 10 years.  We tell ourselves what we’re about.

So people care about this.  One of the purposes of the census is inherently explicitly political, the reapportionment of the House.  That is proper.  That’s constitutional.  The Founders thought about it.  It’s a great idea.  Because it is political, people with very strong political viewpoints care about the census.  That’s the tug.

And what we have to do as statisticians, as a nonpartisan group, is to acknowledge that the product of what we do has political uses.  But the process can never be politicized.  And that’s the thing I have to focus on as the Director every day.  And so while these voices that you hear and you write about care about the census for political purposes, I have to keep a deaf ear to that side and make sure that we’re focused on a census that is right down the middle, and that’s what we do.

Question:  Voices, do you have people calling you – when you say “voices,” do you have people calling you and asking you to add questions, or are you talking about what you read and what you –

Robert Groves:  I do the same thing you do, right?  So we’re constantly seeing what people are saying.  That’s your job.  And I have a little bit of your job of watching what people are saying about the Census Bureau.  That’s part of my job, because I want to make sure that the facts are represented right.  So I read the same things you read, and that’s what I mean by that.  So people aren’t calling me on the phone or anything like that.

Stephen Buckner:  We’re going to try to take just two more questions, then we’ll have media availability afterwards.  In the back row.

Question:  I’m Libby Casey with Alaska Public Radio.  And some officials up in Alaska have said that Norvik, a village up there, will be the first.  There’s been some back and forth.  And could you describe the length you’ll be going to in rural parts of America, like rural Alaska, what sort of efforts you’ll be making that may be different than 10 years ago or that you learned from 10 years ago?

Robert Groves:  This is the most damaging leak that has occurred.  Norvik, Alaska, a very small village in Alaska, will be the first village, the first population that will receive the census forms.  This is in a way a ceremonial event.  But it’s an important event.  We have to, it turns out, enumerate Alaska early, because there are some parts of Alaska that get really inaccessible later on.  So Alaska is first out of the blocks on this one, and it is true that Norvik is our selection this decade.

Your other question was broader.  And that is what do we do in rural areas.  I’ve been emphasizing, I think in my remarks so far, about mailing out the census.  There are some parts of the country that don’t have mailing addresses.  They don’t get their mail at home.  They drive into the Post Office, pick up their mail.

In areas like that, and in some areas where the address system and change in the area has been quite dramatic.  For example, the Gulf Coast and areas that Katrina hit hard, really badly, we’re going to actually hand deliver questionnaires.  And we will drop them off and people will fill them out and mail them back in.

In some areas we’re actually going to go out and immediately enumerate people.  So the one-liner on this is we figure out the best way to enumerate depending on the area and we’ll tailor our methods to the area.

A recent change on this, we’re very interested in customizing our methods to language groups, groups that don’t speak English.  And we’re studying where we could effectively actually give out in language information in groups, small geographically clustered groups that are non-English speakers to be an effective outreach, too.

The big moral is we sort of try to figure out the best way to get people to participate and then we’ll change our methods to fit their situation.

Stephen Buckner: Max in the back.

Question:  Thank you.  Max Tackus from WTOP and Federal News Radio.  Dr. Groves, you sort of weren’t here for the whole situation with the hand-helds kind of falling apart for the Census Bureau.  Can you give us a readout of sort of what you know about how the address survey canvassing has been going with the use of the hand-helds?  And with the benefit of hindsight, what do you think the Census Bureau could have done better to have made for a better outcome in terms of being able to use the hand-held computers also for the census, for the follow-up surveys, the nonresponse follow-up surveys?

Robert Groves:  You’re right.  I wasn’t there when that decision was taken or the developments went on.

I can report on the address canvassing side because I’m terribly interested in the product of that.  So I’ve studied that and got briefed on that.  And all the reports there are there were some glitches, operational things that people found workarounds on.

We removed some things that are called large blocks.  So if an enumerator went to a place where there might be a thousand or 2,000 housing units, say places around here where they’re densely-filled apartment buildings, we didn’t use the hand-helds there, we used another method.

So one of the things the Census Bureau does well, in my opinion, and I thought this before I got this job, too, is when they hit a little glitch, they get workarounds developed pretty quickly.  With those workarounds, these hand-helds worked well enough for address canvassing.  I don’t see anyone critiquing that.

They are not ready and explicitly not ready for other uses of them, and indeed those other uses were the problematic developmental glitches that led to the decision to turn the nonresponse follow-up into a paper operation.

Your other question is what would I have done differently?  I haven’t even looked at that decision process carefully.  I view that as sort of water over the dam.  I’m worried about the product now and going forward.  So I’m not very good at answering that question.

Stephen Buckner:  Okay.  We had just a couple late additional questions on the telephone.  We’re going to take those, then we’ll go to media availability.

Operator:  We have a question from Stephen Morse of mytwocensus.com.

Question:  Hi, can you hear me?

Robert Groves:  Hello.  Good morning.

Question:  Hi.  Dr. Groves, my question actually, census processing centers in Phoenix, Baltimore and Nevada, and I was wondering how well the workers are being screened at these processing centers, the subcontractors?  The screening process in terms of getting background checks on the people who have access to very sensitive information.  I was wondering if you could talk about that.  I know there are people who have misdemeanors and people accused of felonies working at these processing centers.

Robert Groves:  You know, Stephen, are you on Skype?

Question:  I am right now.

Robert Groves:  I’m having trouble understanding you.  I got about every third word.

Question:  Let me try one more time.

Robert Groves:  Let me try to paraphrase.  Are you asking whether we screen the workers of the contractors in the processing centers, is that –

Question:  I want to know about that process, exactly.

Robert Groves:  They go through the same process that our Census Bureau workers do, I mean our employed, our Census Bureau employees do.  There’s a reason for it.  They’re handling the same protected confidential information that our workers are.  And so that process is the same, if that’s your question.

Question:  I wonder, if these people have access to very personal information from millions of Americans, and if the person, say, commits a crime [indiscernible], and they start working six months later, they might [indiscernible] for the Bureau, are there any checks in place to prevent that kind of action from happening?

Robert Groves:  I’m sorry, what is it?

Stephen Buckner:  Stephen, we’ll follow up with you.  I believe the paraphrase was whether or not those employees within the contracted facilities that are processing the forms as they come back in are under the same employment conditions and quality control procedures that are employed in the field.  And the answer is yes.  They are census employees via the contract mechanisms to process those forms.  So it is a lifetime confidentiality.  The same penalties apply.  They cannot share any of that personal information.  They are census employees via the contract that is set up to process those questionnaires over 130 million of them as they come back to those data processing facilities.

All right.  Do we have any more questions on the telephone?  Okay.  We’re going to end the question-and-answer period.  Right now we’ll have a brief media availability.  I know the television cameras want to do a couple of interviews.  Thank you so much for coming.  We’ll try to set up a schedule for these and send out notices to you in the near future about our next one, but probably every month or as we have developments around the 2010 Census.  But thank you for joining us here today and thank you for joining us on the telephone.  Have a nice one.

Congressional Testimony: The Groves Plan

Friday, September 25th, 2009

In what I can best describe as a State of the Census Address, Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves presented a detailed outline of his future plans before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives on 9/22/09. I have named the speech  “The Groves Plan.” (Click the link for an 11 page transcript of the testimony). The plan is insightful and definitely worth reading.