With 2010 Census Looming, Obama Chooses Survey Expert to Run Bureau

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009

President Obama has picked Robert M. Groves, a prominent survey researcher, to lead the Census Bureau, less than a year before the 2010 census begins.

The White House made the announcement yesterday. If confirmed as the agency's director, Groves faces formidable managerial and political concerns surrounding the constitutionally mandated head count.

Next year's census will cost at least $15 billion, more than any previous count. The bureau is under pressure from Congress and advocacy groups to provide a more accurate tally of Hispanics and other minority groups than in the past.

The bureau received $1 billion in stimulus funding to help prepare for the census and will devote up to $250 million for advertising and outreach programs to help boost participation levels among traditionally undercounted groups, mostly minorities in urban areas.

Groves, 60, served as the bureau's associate director from 1990 to 1992 and holds dual professorships at the universities of Michigan and Maryland as part of the Joint Program in Survey Methodology. He is a native of Kansas City, Mo., and once worked as a guard in the Vermont state prison system.

He has researched why people participate in statistical surveys, worked to develop surveys with lower non-response errors and studied how data is collected for surveys. He would preside over an organization that has acknowledged that it may inadvertently miss counting several million people in urban areas and those displaced by the home foreclosure crisis.

"He's one of the four or five people in the country who everyone would turn to for advice" on census issues, said Kenneth Prewitt, who served as census director from 1998 to 2001.

But some Republican lawmakers voiced concern yesterday that Grove supported a statistical adjustment to the 1990 census to make up for undercounting approximately 5 million people, including many minorities from urban areas who trended Democratic.

The Census Bureau has been criticized for the development of handheld, Global Positioning System-enabled computers that approximately 140,000 temporary workers will begin using this week for address canvassing, or a national verification of each place of residence. The agency had planned to use the mini-computers next year, but problems that arose during testing prompted it to decide to use them only this year, for address canvassing.

During his confirmation hearings last month, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke assured lawmakers that the census director will report to him, in consultation with the White House and Congress. Locke has spent considerable time this week assuring various groups of the bureau's independence and credibility. Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers complained about an Obama White House move to play a role in overseeing next year's census, saying it would result in political meddling.

"We're going to make sure that the Census Bureau has the independent leadership it deserves and the professional oversight that Americans demand," Locke said Monday at a bureau-sponsored event. On Wednesday at an event with Hispanic groups, he stressed that personal information collected in the 2010 census will remain confidential, a concern of several groups.

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