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Final Director's Blog from Dr. Steven Dillingham

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Today, I write my last update on the 2020 Census. I have just informed the outstanding staff at the U.S. Census Bureau that that I will retire from federal service on January 20, 2021 at noon. 

This past week, strongly worded questions were submitted to me by the Inspector General (IG) regarding a data request to career Census Bureau analysts by one or two Administration appointees assigned to the Census Bureau. The request was for certain administrative data to improve estimates of population categories. Contrary to published comments and reports, the data recently requested was not an attempt to release 2020 census data results for apportionment early. I promptly responded to the questions in writing and my answers are posted on the Census Bureau website. Below is a statement from me providing context and summarizing my knowledge of the recent request which has been reported and commented on in the media. The statement is followed by an announcement of my plans and heartfelt appreciation of my time and service with the Census Bureau and its outstanding employees.

Director’s Statement Regarding Recent Matter of a Requested Data Tabulation

Following is a summary of my knowledge of events of last week that resulted in questions from the Inspector General stemming from complaints received from Census Bureau whistleblowers regarding concerns in being assigned work to produce and review summary numbers, by state, of non-citizens residing in the country legally. The request for data was relevant and responsive to an officially announced and much publicized directive from the President pursuant to Executive Order 13880, issued on July 11, 2019.  The Order instructed the Department and the Bureau to collect additional administrative data that might be used in developing better estimates of citizens and non-citizens (including estimates of the number of legal and unauthorized immigrants). It is my understanding that estimates of unauthorized non-citizen U.S. residents have been generated by reputable groups, including researchers at Yale University, Pew Research Center, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I also am informed that these groups relied in part on available Census Bureau survey data. This latest request to examine relevant Census administrative data came approximately ten days prior to this week’s scheduled presidential transition. As explained to me, the intent of the requested data review was for potential completion of a column in a short data table, relying on newly acquired administrative data to supplement and improve estimates.

I asked the career Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Census Bureau to coordinate the data review process. He informed me that several analysts chosen by him and his senior staff would work with the data but likely view the assignment unfavorably. The career analysts had prior discussions on this and other data requests. I asked the career Deputy Director to monitor progress and provide me with updates, as the suggested time frame of producing results in a matter of days might be overly ambitious and we had no way to assess what the review might discover. I requested that the work not create a gap in other priority work of the analysts. The career Deputy Director and I agreed that any potential publication of the data on the Census Bureau website would require a rigorous review and assessment of its accuracy, along with a published clear statement of limitations that may apply. The envisioned data tabulation was described to me as a single column of state numbers (or estimates) a page or two in length. I was informed that the data review and any potential publication of summary numbers or estimates would comply with quality standards used by the Bureau in producing “technical reports.”

I received brief updates of the analysts’ work over the course of several days. The final update informed me that data problems had been identified that would require additional work. Accordingly, I informed my career Deputy Director to inform the analysts that there was no deadline for the work and to proceed without any worries or stress due to a suggested deadline. I assumed any concerns with the work effort were resolved and no product would be produced during the present Administration.

The next day I received via email a memorandum with questions from the Inspector General on this matter that identified whistleblower concerns. Upon reading the email, I directed my career Deputy Director to stop the work. In my prior career Federal service, I have worked for two Federal agencies – Office of Inspector General for the Department of Energy and the U.S. Merit Systems Board -- where it was my responsibility to protect whistleblowers and adjudicate whistleblower disputes. Whistleblower complaints must be taken seriously and appropriate steps taken as quickly as possible. There has been no suggestion to me that the work described above posed any potential violation of laws, rules, or regulations. From what I understand, the reported whistleblower concerns appear to be misunderstandings regarding the planned process for the review and potential postings of data, and the agreed upon need to apply data quality standards. A variety of factors may have contributed to misperceptions and heightened concerns associated with a limited request for a professional review of administrative data, for purposes of improving estimates - not for delivering 2020 Census apportionment data which the Bureau had  determined was weeks away.

Director’s Future Plans

In a separate emailed message, I have notified Census Bureau employees of my plans to retire again from Federal Service, as of Wednesday noon when the Presidential transition occurs. I have served in every Administration since the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, mostly in career positions and am proud of my service in each. When I retired five years ago following a quarter century of Federal service, I began a new job the following day. I later returned to Federal service in this Administration. After serving at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Peace Corps, I was unanimously confirmed to direct the Census Bureau.

When I retire on Wednesday, I am hoping for some personal time for other matters, given that I have not had a vacation in more than two years. Still, I know many Census Bureau professionals have worked harder and longer hours than me on the 2020 Census, and they performed magnificently. I fully expect that President-Elect Biden will have complete confidence in the results that he will announce. I expect he also will thank all who contributed for a job well done.  Finally, I hope my departure message to the Census team conveys my deep love for the agency, commitment to its important mission, and appreciation of its many outstanding professionals who accomplish their extraordinary work no matter the challenge.   

Expression of Thanks

My retirement plans have progressed over several weeks. My planned departure would have occurred earlier, but I received requests to continue serving during and after the transition, including from a President-Elect Biden transition official. I appreciate their interest and support. But I must do now what I think is best. I have devoted several decades to public service and it is time for me to retire once again. Let me make it clear that under other circumstances I would be honored to serve President-Elect Biden just as I served the past five presidents. I first worked with President-Elect Biden and his staff in the mid-1980s while he was the Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member. Later, when he was Committee Chair, he presided over my confirmation hearing and could not have been more supportive or nicer to me and my family. Finally, more than a decade ago when then Vice President Biden visited the U.S. Embassy in Iraq where I was working on Rule of Law during a period of instability and dangerous conditions, he traveled in the dead of night in an armored vehicle to reach the embassy, where he individually thanked us for our service. I thanked him for his.

I know that President-Elect Biden understands the important role of statistical agencies and I am confident that he will select talented leadership for the Census Bureau, as evidenced by the strong and experienced leadership team he supports for the Department of Commerce.

I want to thank the many U.S. Senators and U.S. House members who have supported the Census Bureau and our efforts to achieve a complete and accurate count. The widespread support in Congress for the 2020 Census is without precedent, especially preceding and during data collection. At an appropriate time, I hope to share with the Congress my strong suggestion that the schedule for the decennial census data collection begin a year earlier, if possible, with time to adjust for contingencies like pandemics and natural disasters, to leave more time for data processing, and to prevent trust and goodwill generated across the nation for more than a year to be permeated or diminished by politics during an overlapping election cycle while data is being finalized. We have just seen how late changes and directives, competing and divisive political campaigns, and a divided electorate can negatively impact public trust and perceptions.

A special thanks is extended to all state and local officials, thousands of complete count committees, businesses, non-profits, educators, religious leaders, and millions of others who supported the 2020 Census. The decennial census truly belongs to our nation and depends on everyone.

Finally, I have sent my farewell and appreciation letter to the dedicated professionals of the Census Bureau, announcing my retirement. I hope it properly conveys my heartfelt appreciation for their outstanding public service. 

In sum, the successful 2020 Census serves to unify the nation for an extended period and political party affiliation is irrelevant. In 2020, nearly 400,000 partnering organizations representing tens of millions of persons nation-wide and reaching into every community actively supported the census. The 99.98% household address resolution rate was phenomenal, especially during a pandemic. The Nation needs to take advantage of the nation’s support and non-partisan teamwork in conducting future censuses and fulfilling our important Constitutional and civic responsibility that helps to shape the future for all.

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Page Last Revised - August 24, 2023
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