Spotlight on the Census

How would Trump’s proposed cuts affect the census?

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Michele Paccione. 

The Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's nominee for Commerce Department secretary by a 72 to 27 vote on Feb. 27, but the future of programs and positions Wilbur Ross will oversee remains hazy.

Commerce is a sprawling department that houses several IT-intensive bureaus and programs, including the Census Bureau, whose 2020 enumeration was recently placed on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list.

As it stands, hundreds of presidentially appointed positions remain unfilled, including the Commerce deputy secretary slot. Trump's pick for deputy secretary, Todd Ricketts, reportedly may withdraw from consideration due to difficulties in divesting from his family's business ties.

However, in a Feb. 28 interview with Fox and Friends, Trump said that "in many cases" he's not making appointments by design, in the name of "running a very good, efficient government."

"A lot of those jobs I don't want to appoint because they're unnecessary to have," Trump said. "We have so many people in government… You don't need all those jobs."

Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier agreed that not every job is needed, but suggested that simply not making appointments is not the same as carefully pruning superfluous positions.

"There's a meaningful thing [Trump] could do by de-layering government, but he needs to do it strategically and holistically," Stier told FCW. "He can't do it ad hoc. ... Simply not nominating someone won't get him there in most instances."

Stier also pointed out that "almost all" of these positions are not left empty; rather, they remain filled by an acting employee.

"It doesn't actually reduce the size of government," said Stier, though it might reduce effectiveness. He noted acting employees "are not perceived by themselves or the outside world as having the full authority of doing what they have to do… and will not take on the long-term challenges."

One notable Senate-confirmed position for the Census Bureau is its director, currently filled by John Thompson. Thompson's five-year term expired at the end of December 2016 without being formally renewed, putting him on a one-year extension.

The Trump administration can renew his term for another five years, but, otherwise, "he's out by the end of the year," GAO' Director of Strategic Issues Robert Goldenkoff told FCW.

Beneath Thompson, two vacant, high-ranking Census positions also must be addressed. D'eputy Director Nancy Potok was named U.S. chief statistician in January, and Assistant Director of Decennial Census Programs Shirin Ahmed plans to retire in March.

In addition to filling these top positions, the bureau also needs to begin recruiting and staffing its new regional offices. For these hires, the ongoing hiring freeze could pose an obstacle. Without an exemption, said Goldenkoff, "it's unclear how they will carry out a robust" end-to-end test in 2018, and that could increase Census' risk.

Another cut floated by Trump that could affect the Census Bureau is the preliminarily budget guidance released Feb. 27, which outlines a $54 billion increase in defense spending, offset by cuts across civilian agencies.

While the president's budget means little if Congress does not authorize and appropriate accordingly, any across-the-board cuts to civilian agencies could take place the same year as Census's critical 2018 dress rehearsal -- the last chance to test the new technologies to be used in 2020 after nixing its 2017 tests due to budget uncertainty.

Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, told FCW that such cuts, if enacted, would affect Census planning as it continues to ramp up its spending and hiring to prepare for the main event in 2020.

Sparks acknowledged "it's difficult" for new members of Congress and a new administration to account for future Census funding, but added, "frankly, we're worried."

Sparks said he was encouraged by Ross's familiarity with and support of the Census Bureau, but was less convinced about Mick Mulvaney, the new head of the Office of Management and Budget. Mulvaney is known as a budget hawk, and voted to eliminate funding for 'the American Community Survey in 2012.

"He's an unknowable commodity," said Sparks.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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