Census director resigns amid 2020 prep

John Thompson, director Census Bureau 2013-2017 

John Thompson is retiring as director of the Bureau of the Census.

John Thompson announced his retirement, effective June 30, as director of the Bureau of the Census. The move comes as the bureau is set to make some big decisions about the 2020 census and deliver a long-awaited cost estimate that could show cost overruns.

The announcement comes less than one week after a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in which Census cost overruns were a central topic, and Thompson acknowledged the projected $5 billion in cost savings "might change" pending a new lifecycle cost estimate to be released this summer.

The Government Accountability Office has suggested that in IT alone, 2020 census cost overruns could hit $1 billion --  a figure not disputed by the bureau.

Phil Sparks, who leads the watchdog group Census Project, told FCW that while he expected Thompson to resign at some point before year's end, "given all the other things happening with the Census Bureau, this probably couldn’t have come at a worse time."

By the end of 2017, Census plans to award three IT contracts, scale up its systems, release a new lifecycle cost estimate and begin prep for the decennial dress rehearsal. Now the bureau must navigate its lengthy 2017 to-do list with an acting head until President Donald Trump nominates and the Senate confirms a permanent replacement for Thompson.

The Census deputy director post is currently unfilled. A Commerce spokesperson told FCW via email it would designate an acting director "in the coming days."

Nancy Potok, the most recent deputy director, was tapped in January to become U.S. chief statistician.

"Clearly everybody's got to urge on the advocacy side … that Trump speed up the nomination process," Sparks said. "They've got to get someone in there right now to be an advocate for the 2018 budget, which has got to be more than [what is called for in] the skinny budget."

Thompson had his term extended by the Obama administration and was expected to depart the agency. Census director terms run on fixed five-year terms. Thompson was sworn in in August 2013, but his term dated back to Jan. 1, 2012, and expired at the end of 2016.

"With the Census Bureau well-positioned to meet the challenges of measuring our changing population and economy and carrying out an innovative and accurate census in 2020, now is the right time for me to pursue new ventures," Thompson said in a statement. "My decision will allow Department of Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, and the current administration sufficient time to put the proper leadership in place to guide the Census Bureau through the 2020 census."

Thompson began working at Census in 1975 in the Statistical Methods and Statistical Support Divisions. For the 2000 Census, he served in an associate director role before leaving the bureau in 2002 to join the National Opinion Research Center. Thompson also served on panels aiding Census in the lead-up to the 2010 count and was nominated by President Barack Obama in May 2013 and sworn in as director three months later.

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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