Census Bureau Braces for Top Officials' Retirement

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

As if the U.S. Census Bureau did not already have enough challenges, its new director has now identified another: the agency's impending brain drain.

Director Robert M. Groves warned colleagues Wednesday that almost half of the bureau's top managers will be eligible for retirement next year. He said he will seek "every legal way possible" to attract qualified replacements but urged employees of all ages to start swapping war stories.

"Take a little time to pass on your experience to those that you're going to leave behind," he told older employees considering retirement.

As for the younger ones, "seek out those wise elders," he said. "Listen to them, ask them about their experiences, learn from them actively. Be proactive on this. Invite them to lunch."

Groves spoke to employees at a ceremony in Suitland, where Commerce Secretary Gary Locke swore him in as the agency's 23rd director. Seven former directors of the bureau attended the event.

The possibility of losing 22 of the bureau's top 50 managers threatens to complicate the upcoming decennial headcount, which faces a host of other challenges. In the next six months, the bureau will begin mobilizing the largest temporary civilian workforce in U.S. history to help complete the 2010 Census. Next year's count, which is expected to cost at least $14 billion, will help reshape congressional districts in time for the 2012 elections.

Handheld computers developed especially for the count at a cost of millions of dollars failed after several tests, meaning temporary workers will have to rely on pencil and paper. Several groups have voiced concerns that the bureau will fail to count historically undercounted minority groups in large cities and remote rural areas. Officials will also have to account for the millions of Gulf Coast residents who relocated after deadly hurricanes, and the millions of homeowners displaced by the foreclosure crisis.

Also, a growing chorus of skeptics has raised concerns about the bureau's ability to avoid political interference from the Obama administration next year. Former Census Bureau directors have suggested that such concerns could be addressed by removing the bureau from the Commerce Department, making it an independent scientific agency similar to NASA or the National Science Foundation.

Legislation introduced this year by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) would separate the bureau from Commerce in 2012 and establish five-year terms for the director that overlap presidential administrations. Five former directors appeared at a House hearing Tuesday to voice support for the measure.

"The Commerce Department has a large load of responsibilities to deal with, of which the Census Bureau is only one," said Barbara Everitt Bryant, who served as census director for President George H.W. Bush. The growing size, scope and needs of the bureau are incompatible with the department's priorities, she said.

Martha Farnsworth Riche, who served as President Bill Clinton's first census director, noted that budgeting for the decennial census throws the Commerce Department's budget off-balance every decade, affecting the department's other agencies.

On Wednesday, Groves welcomed the congressional debate.

"It's good to talk about these issues about how to nurture and improve federal statistics," he said in response to a reporter's question while Locke looked on. "Whether this particular proposal is one that has merit is something that is open to fulsome discussion, and we ought to have it."

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