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U.S. census director says the bureau needs to reduce chances of meddling after Trump

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, shown here during his 2021 Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., began serving as the first Latino to head the federal government's largest statistical agency in January.
Tom Williams
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CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, shown here during his 2021 Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., began serving as the first Latino to head the federal government's largest statistical agency in January.

Updated February 21, 2022 at 6:39 PM ET

The U.S. Census Bureau needs to work on ways the limit the potential for political interference with future national headcounts, the bureau's director, Robert Santos, told NPR on Monday.

"I'm not too interested in looking back on and relitigating the events that occurred with the previous administration. But looking forward, I think it's really important for us to make sure that there are policies and regulations that are in place to reduce the chance of meddling," Santos said in one of his first media interviews since becoming the bureau's leader in January.

After NPR previously reported on Santos' comments about the Biden administration drafting new regulations to try to better protect the bureau from any interference from its parent agency, the Commerce Department, Santos said in an email that he misspoke.

"I am not aware of any regulations being drafted and apologize for the confusion," Santos said.

Instead, he added, he meant to refer to ongoing work by the administration's Scientific Integrity Task Force on improving the policies of federal agencies, including the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department.

Last month, a report by that task force, which included the bureau's highest-ranking civil servant, Deputy Director Ron Jarmin, warned that the bureau and other federal statistical agencies "must protect against interference in their efforts to create and release data that provide a set of common facts to inform policymakers, researchers, and the public."

The assessment came after years of meddling with the 2020 census by former President Donald Trump's administration, which attempted to add a hotly contested question about U.S. citizenship status to the head count's forms; added a series of political appointees with no obvious qualifications to the bureau's top ranks; and cut short counting efforts after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed many of the bureau's operations.

The moves by the previous administration have fueled calls for new ways to safeguard the once-a-decade head count's integrity.

In recent decades, there have been proposals to move the bureau out of the Commerce Department and make it an independent agency. These efforts include bills in Congress introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who currently chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

"I will support whatever it is that Congress decides that they want to do," Santos, who is expected to serve as the bureau's director through 2026, told NPR. "There are many issues that need to be worked out if an independent agency was created. However, I'm comfortable with the current structure, and I will work with Congress in terms of whatever they decide."

The first Latino to head the federal government's largest statistical agency, Santos is weeks into a political appointment that has landed him in not only U.S. history books but also a hotbed of controversy over the results of the 2020 head count.

Even though the results have already been used to reallocate each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as to redraw maps of voting districts across the country, questions about accuracy linger over the count.

On March 10, the bureau is set to start releasing results of its own assessment of the data's quality.

Concerned about the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and interference by the Trump administration, many census watchers are hoping to see to what extent the 2020 census may continue a decades-long pattern — the overcounting of people who identify as white and not Latino and the undercounting of people of color.

Flaws in the count carry big implications for political representation, the distribution of some $1.5 trillion a year and the country's understanding of the people living in the United States. Santos and other bureau officials are under pressure to come up with new methods to mitigate the effects of a turbulent census.

Santos is also stepping into a heated debate over privacy protections applied to the 2020 census redistricting data and other more detailed information, just as the bureau ramps up its planning for the 2030 census, which could bring new ways of collecting data on race and ethnicity, particularly about Latinos and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.


Interview highlights

NPR: The Census Bureau is getting ready to release key metrics about the quality of the 2020 census results. Before you were nominated to be the bureau's director in April 2021, you told NPR you were worried about the pandemic's impact on the bureau's post-enumeration survey that's used to produce the bulk of these metrics. Have you seen any of the metrics expected out on March 10, and are you still worried?

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos: Actually, I have not seen the results yet of the post-enumeration study. As part of my role, being the census director, I usually wait till right before because otherwise there could be a misperception of meddling. That is not the way I operate, and that's not the way the Census Bureau should operate. So, we let the career folks work with the results. I'm interested as the rest of the public is in those results, so I'll wait along with you and I'll probably have them the day of.

Do you still have the concerns, the worries you told NPR [about] back in December 2020 about the [post-enumeration survey]?

Well, anyone would have worries given where we were at the time with the pandemic and other challenges associated with the count. Even though there are concerns, we know and I've seen that based on the initial results of the 2020 census, with regard to the apportionment counts and the redistricting, that the Census Bureau completed the job it intended to do. And we have quality results that are fit for the purposes of apportionment and redistricting.

The post-enumeration results will be what they are. No census is perfect, and what we need to do is to understand what the strengths and limitations are, just like any other census.

You've been a vocal critic of interference with the census by former President Donald Trump's administration. What do you think are the lessons learned from the Trump years about how to better protect the census from political interference?

I'm not too interested in looking back on and relitigating the events that occurred with the previous administration. But looking forward, I think it's really important for us to make sure that there are policies and regulations that are in place to reduce the chance of meddling.

The lesson learned for me was that there — and I said this publicly — was that there should not be a large number of political appointee positions in the Census Bureau. And those are positions that I am not filling. And I am very hyperaware and work with the career staff to make sure that there is no perception of meddling in terms of the operation. The career staff need to do their thing. They are the experts.

An ongoing discussion you're stepping into as the bureau's new director is about controversial new differential privacy protections the bureau is using for the 2020 census redistricting data and other more detailed data releases. The bureau has said they're needed to keep people anonymous in the detailed demographic data it releases to the public.

But many data users are concerned about how these protections blur the census results and could make data about small geographic areas and minority groups within communities unusable. You tweeted back in February 2020 that using differential privacy on 2020 census data is a "big challenge/risk."

Do you support the Census Bureau's decision to use differential privacy?

The quick answer is yes, I do support it. As I have entered the position as director and been briefed on the sophisticated risks that now threaten disclosure with new data analytics and new sources of data from which to merge onto census data in order to create disclosure risk, it's clear that the old methods that were employed in 2010 would not work in 2020. Every decade, every decennial census we revise, and we have revised, the disclosure avoidance methods.

Differential privacy is a new way. It's an elegant mathematical approach. It does have the challenge, and it continues to be a challenge, of finding the sweet spot between providing low-grade levels of detail at low levels of geography on the one side and on the other side, protecting people's privacy and avoiding disclosure risks. We have a method now that we are comfortable with. It does take time that involves repeated stakeholder input so that we can find that sweet spot.

A recent NPR analysis found the highest-ranking career civil servants in the bureau's Senior Executive Service identify predominantly as white, not Latino, and male.

And you recently put out a blog post about your first weeks at the bureau, and you emphasized how embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace can ultimately promote "innovation, creativity and critical thinking that can lead to excellence."

I wonder, what do you think a term-limited, politically appointed director, such as yourself, can do to improve diversity, equity and inclusion inside the bureau?

What I bring to the Census Bureau as a Latino is a different perspective and a passion for sound scientific research, as well as this idea that embracing diversity, equity and inclusion is a pathway toward taking the conventional scientific wisdom and methods and making them actually better.

What I can do as director is to plant seeds throughout the Census Bureau at all levels of the organization in an aspirational way, and that is my approach. Changing culture in any organization is a huge challenge. And so, five or even 10 years may not do it. But if you plant the aspirational seeds that show and demonstrate the value of diverse perspectives and show how it relates to scientific integrity, to better and more relevant statistical data that's more useful to stakeholders and communities and the public and Congress, then that inspiration can grow in individuals. And with that perspective, they can then become better career scientists and better at whatever they do at the Census Bureau to advance the mission.

So, I see this as a cultural change that's going to be taken one step at a time and will blossom. When it's going to blossom, that's up for debate. But there's much that we can do in this area, and there's much that I intend to do moving forward.

I wanted to end on a more personal note. During your confirmation hearing in July 2021, you took a pause during your opening statement when you were talking about your brother who died while serving in the Vietnam War. What were you thinking about at that moment?

Well, the pause was emotional, and I am who I am. And in that moment, my brother was with me, and I felt his presence. And I essentially, internally, was paying tribute to him and then deciding when it was time to move on.

And he came to mind because?

He came to mind because his death represented essentially a gift to me that I didn't want with regard to a [military draft] deferment. And I always wanted to serve my country in a certain way. You know, I would have joined the military or allowed myself to be drafted had my brother not passed. And with this event, I found that I didn't have that opportunity. And so, when I was contacted about serving as director of the Census Bureau if confirmed, it represented the instance where I could fulfill that desire I had as a young kid and pay tribute to my brother as well.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 20, 2022 at 8:00 PM AKST
Because of incorrect information provided by Census Bureau Director Robert Santos during an interview, an earlier version of this web story inaccurately said that the Biden administration is drafting new regulations to try to better protect the bureau from any future political interference from its parent agency, the Commerce Department. After the interview, Santos said he misspoke and is not aware of any such regulations being drafted.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.