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A Restructuring of Census Bureau Regional Offices

Wed Jun 29 2011
Robert Groves
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The Census Bureau produces a vast array of statistical information used by governments and business to inform decisions and policies that affect all of our lives. In addition to programs like the American Community Survey and the Economic Census, the Census Bureau provides statistical services to other Federal government agencies. Indeed, over 20 percent of the Census Bureau’s work is funded through agreements with other Federal agencies to conduct surveys which provide key statistics charting the society or economy. We design the surveys, collect the data, process the completed questionnaires, and assist our clients as together we fulfill our mission of providing statistical information to the country.

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Like us, many of our clients provide statistical estimates on the household population of the US. These statistics touch every aspect of Americans’ lives – health, crime, income, education, labor force participation, housing conditions, consumer expenditures, and a host of others. Almost all the surveys involve the use of a trained, professional national field interviewing force the Census Bureau maintains for such general purpose use.

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Since 1961 the Census Bureau has used 12 regional offices located in large cities throughout the country to administer the data collections for these sample surveys, to update geographical features important to the Bureau, and to provide support for the dissemination of the statistics that the Census Bureau surveys produce.

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The statistics we help produce for our client agencies and those we ourselves produce for the nation have never been in higher demand. Our statistics are used by businesses throughout the country to make decisions on selection of sites for new locations. They are used by local governments for planning of public transportation, schools, and health service evaluation. Researchers use our data to study important trends in the society and the economy.

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Despite the demand for the information, the busier lives of the American public have required our interviewers to spend more time calling on households and finding a time when they can complete our interview. This means the costs of data collection are increasing much faster than inflation. This fact has singularly led to many of the efforts the career professionals at Census have been mounting to use more and more efficient processes to do our work.

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At the same time, there have been many changes in the management tools for surveys over the years – the laptops our interviewers carry provide electronic reporting of completed cases, calling histories, work hours and travel miles. Looking forward, the Census Bureau, like all survey organizations, is moving toward multiple-mode surveys (internet, telephone, face-to-face interviewing), which require tools to move sample cases among modes during data collection. The changes in how surveys will be conducted in the future demand that we extract every efficiency in our field processes.

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The regional offices are a key part of our work, and we have been deliberating since April 2010 on how best to organize them for the future. Our goal is to prepare the Census Bureau for the changing landscape of statistical data collection we see coming.

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We have decided to transition from a Regional Office design of 12 offices to one of 6 offices. The transition has begun and will be fully completed by January 2013. The new design strengthens and unifies the supervision of field representatives and increases the number of supervisory staff working out of their homes. Simultaneously, we are reviewing the technical and administrative organization within the headquarters offices in order to assure that we have both a strong technical skill mix and a cost efficient administrative organization, matching that of the new regional structure.

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We are also accelerating the development of better management information systems, based on unified daily tracking of field representative effort, forecasts of production, and quality indicators from the survey. The new supervisory structure for field interviewers is compatible with the use of such systems.

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The change in structure offers cost savings, but the move to the six office structure will deliberately be a slow one, with close attention to the quality of the data collected. We will form teams with our internal and external clients to detect any potential undesired effect on data quality during the transition.

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The closing of six regional offices was a difficult decision and one that will produce disruption and pain in the lives of workers in those offices. While our hope is to see these staff fill vacancies in other parts of the Census Bureau, we know that this will not be completely successful. I have pledged and directed others to ensure we use every legal remedy to reduce the negative impact of this change on these employees.

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This restructuring is another attempt by the Census Bureau to be a prudent steward of the taxpayers’ money and fulfill its mission to provide the country important statistical information on how it’s doing. In the current era of tight fiscal budgets, we are challenged to do more with less.

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U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke shares his thoughts on the restructuring at the White House Blog.

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