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Remarks at 2010 Census Operational Press Briefing


Tuesday, August 10, 2010



Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
Remarks at 2010 Census Operational Press Briefing

I'd like to thank you all for coming out today.  It's great to be here with so many of my colleagues who helped make the 2010 Census a resounding success -- most notably, Dr. Bob Groves, our Census Director.

Bob will be speaking to you in just a bit.

Bob and his team - working with senior leadership at the Commerce Department – achieved incredible results with the 2010 Census and achieved helped substantial cost savings for the American taxpayer. 

The 2010 Census is a textbook example of President Obama’s Accountable Government Initiative, which aims to cut waste and deliver taxpayers better services for less.

The 2010 Census has been a priority for me since my first day in office.  And I mean that literally.

In March 2009, I took a redeye flight from Seattle to arrive in DC for my first day as Commerce Secretary.  I got into Reagan National at 6am – and after a quick hotel shower, I was attending an 8am National Census Partners Kickoff Event.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why the 2010 Census was such a top priority when I entered office.

The Census determines how more than $400 billion in federal funds are allocated each year to local communities for everything from education and senior services to roads and police.

The 2010 Census will also serve as the basis for the congressional redistricting that states are doing in 2011.

And the 2010 Census was the largest civilian undertaking in U.S. history.

565,000 census takers conducted field operations in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. 

In the process, the Census Bureau partnered with 255,000 community based organizations ranging from nonprofit and religious groups to businesses.

And I am very proud to announce today, that because of the exceptional efforts of our Census Bureau and its partners, and the cooperation of the American people, that the 2010 Census is both on schedule and 22 percent under budget.

In all, the Census Bureau will be returning 1.6 billion taxpayer dollars.   

This did not happen by chance. 

Commerce and Census Bureau leadership ran a tight ship. 

We demanded accountability. 

And we made sure we stretched every taxpayer dollar as far as we could.

Before this Census began, experts inside and outside the government predicted that long-standing operational and fiscal problems at the U.S. Census Bureau would doom the 2010 count to cost overruns and diminished participation by the American people.  

In 2009, the Commerce Department’s own Inspector General, as well as the Government Accountability Office, ranked the 2010 Census as one of the federal government programs most likely to fail.

That did not happen.

In fact, the 2010 Census achieved a mail-back response rate of 72 percent, which:

  • defied the predictions of experts;
  • matched the 2000 response rate; and
  • reversed a multi-decade decline in mail response.

There is no one silver bullet that created this success.

Census Bureau professionals developed a strong operational design that included important innovations, including a reengineered address list and a short-form 10-question questionnaire.

Other innovations were more mundane – but no less impactful. 

For example, one of the strategies the Census Bureau took to boost mail response was to resend questionnaires to people who hadn't initially responded; with the thinking being that some people just needed a simple reminder or may have thrown out their first questionnaire. 

This was a huge money saver for American taxpayers.

Every one percent increase in the mail response rate saved $85 million, by reducing the number of expensive door to door follow-ups.

Some of these adjustments were underway at the outset of the Obama administration. 

But their ultimate success was guaranteed by the Commerce department’s ethic of constant improvement and a constant search for efficiencies over the last 17 months.

The Census Bureau operations team held daily meetings to troubleshoot problems with the bureau's field operations control system -- which was a high-risk software system used to manage the work of the 565,000 census takers conducting multiple field operations. 

As the entire Census Bureau and Commerce Department undertook these internal management reforms, we also revamped our public outreach efforts.

The Obama administration budgeted more money for:

  • Additional advertising in hard-to-count areas
  • Advertising in more languages; and a
  • 4-fold increase in staff supporting the 255,000 member Partnership Program

And our advertising was more targeted than it had ever been before. 

In 2009, we created a media buy reserve that permitted tracking lagging responses in individual cities and intervention in these markets with additional advertising. 

So on March 30 of this year, the Census Bureau’s senior leadership team identified 23 media markets containing a total of 17.7 million households, that seriously lagged in response. 

After intervening with more advertising in these markets, low performers were reduced by April 20 to just 10 markets with 1.6 million households.

All these specific measures were an outgrowth of the Commerce Department’s commitment to applying the type of core management principles that can help solve any operational challenge.

Relentless attention to detail, setting ambitious goals and creating precise metrics to measure performance – these were the principles I depended on during my time as Governor of Washington State, and they are the principles that helped make the 2010 Census a resounding success.

At least half the savings we achieved with the Census can be directly attributed to:

  • Better management;
  • Better productivity among our Census counters; and
  • The fact that our impressive mail response rate reduced the number of Census employees we had to send out to do door-to-door counting of households.

The other half of the savings came from a reserve fund that we had set aside to deal with operational problems and other unforeseen circumstances that fortunately never arose

This is an accomplishment of which we are very proud. 

I'm proud of the work of my senior leadership team at Commerce. 

I’m proud of the unbelievable leadership provided by Dr. Bob Groves and his team. 

And I am proud of the American people for understanding the importance of the Census to their communities and participating at much greater numbers than anyone expected.

In a bit I will be happy to take any questions you might have, but first let me hand things off to Dr. Groves. . . .