Charles Kincannon: Applying Statistics to the Public Service Sector
Charles Louis Kincannon, who was 72 when he passed away in December 2012, enjoyed a rich career in statistics lasting 45 years.
He was born right on the cusp of World War II in Waco, Texas. His father traveled often due to his work for a company that owned furniture stores. As a result, Kincannon’s family moved frequently when he was a child. He recalled being enrolled in three schools each year from first to third grades, which made it challenging for him to form friendships.
“It was not normal and it made it difficult to make friends,” Kincannon said in July 2012. “Beginning with third grade, we were more stable.”
When Kincannon was in fourth grade, his family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where they remained through Kincannon’s senior year of high school. He graduated from high school in 1959 and went on to major in economics at The University of Texas at Austin.
During his senior year of college, Kincannon received a telegram that would change the course of his life. The telegram was from Don Fay, who was then chief of the personnel division of the employee relations branch, asking Kincannon if he would be interested in a job in economic statistics or computer programming. Kincannon, who had never taken a statistics class before, took classes in both subjects during his last semester and found he preferred statistics over computer science.
In June 1963, Kincannon packed his bags and moved to Washington, DC. “At the end of the term, I went back home and packed up a suitcase and my belongings,” he said. “I got a one-way ticket to Washington, where I’d never been before.”
When Kincannon landed in Washington, he connected with a former high-school classmate who helped him adjust to his new home. Kincannon began work as a statistician in the food, textiles, apparel, and leather branch of the industry division of the U.S. Census Bureau soon afterward. He reported to then-Textiles Section Chief Bob Nealon, who he counted as one of his mentors.Kincannon was involved in the evaluation of the 1964 economic statistics census and traveled to Jeffersonville, Indiana, to evaluate surveys. His memories of Jeffersonville were of a “nitty-gritty place” without air conditioning.
“I was not involved in the planning of the economic statistics census, but I certainly was deeply involved in review of returned questionnaires,” Kincannon said. “As a matter of fact, each of the analysts, statistical survey statisticians from the industry division, went to Indiana to where the questionnaires were returned and processed for a week or more at a time, and rotated back to Washington after being there.”
Kincannon said that evaluating surveys was an “interesting” experience due to his interactions with business owners from across the country. “In general, [the surveys] were taken seriously and [business owners] cooperated with us,” he said. “It wasn’t a struggle. People in business understood it was important to their success.” He continued, “It was a good induction into basic statistical work.”
After a few years as a statistician in the industry division, Kincannon was encouraged by Nealon to sign up for an internship offered by the Census Bureau. He was interviewed by a panel of executives and then placed in an assignment in the population division, where he was advised by Max Shor, a man he also considered a mentor. During his internship, he had an assignment in the Office of Business Economics near Dupont Circle, where he worked on input/output tables from the 1963 business census. After his internship ended in the early 1970s, he returned to the industry division, then the population division, and joined the staff of the Office of Management and Budget in 1975. While at the OMB, he worked on statistical and regulatory policy during the Ford Administration and then served as the statistical liaison to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s office.
In September 1981, Kincannon returned to the Census Bureau and was appointed deputy director and chief operating officer in January 1982 by Bruce Chapman, President Reagan’s first director of the Census Bureau. Kincannon also served as acting director from July 1983 to March 1984 and again in 1989. During that time, he directed the final preparations for the 1990 census.
“In a sense, [deputy director] is the most important job there because directors come and go,” he said. “I served under three directors in the 10 years I was deputy, and sometimes deputies don’t last so long either. You’re really responsible as deputy director for pulling together the programs of the agency and maintaining its coherence and its long-run vision.”
In 1992, Kincannon and his wife, Claire, moved to Paris after he was appointed as the first chief statistician at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He coordinated the organization’s statistical programs and advised the OECD secretary general on statistical policy. In June 2000, he left France to return to the United States. More than a year later, then-President George W. Bush nominated Kincannon for director of the Census Bureau.
Kincannon applied for the directorship in the spring of 2001 and recalled going through many interviews with Congress and the White House. “I had to fill out a relevant series of forms for the Senate committee conducting the hearing and for the FBI,” he said. “I had to go through an FBI investigation, and those were detailed.”
The process was delayed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred; however, the Senate confirmed him unanimously on March 13, 2002. Kincannon served as the director of the Census Bureau until his retirement in January 2008. He served just shy of six years, the longest of any director since the Eisenhower administration.
Of all his career accomplishments, Kincannon was most proud of his work on the American Community Survey during his tenure as director. “We had done planning and good formal testing of the ACS by the time I was named director,” he said. “I knew about the program and thought it was the most sensible thing to stop sending out the long form of the census when people are distracted by so many things. … I was convinced of its utility and was convinced it would be a miraculous improvement to have data for smaller areas once a year, instead of just every decade.”
During his long career at the Census Bureau, Kincannon was honored with numerous awards, including the Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive, the Special Award for Excellence of the Interagency Committee on Information Resources Management, and the Commerce Department’s highest civil service honor, the Gold Medal.
Kincannon learned many important lessons throughout his lengthy career, especially that the census is more than just a survey people fill out every 10 years. He also stressed that diligent planning and good communication are essential for one’s success at the Census Bureau.
“Well, the census is very important to many groups in this country,” he said. “Minority groups, national origin groups, people in small towns and medium-sized cities, people in big cities too, are very anxious to have accurate census figures because they affect the drawing of school boundaries, micro boundaries, bus and transportation services provided, and the location of stores. It’s not just an exercise for sociologists and economists; it is a practical tool of government at every level to plan and administer programs. The same thing is true for private businesses. Large retail groups especially make use of census results to make decisions for where to open stores, where the population has grown, and where per capita income has grown. I learned a lot about that and that you’d better be careful with your planning, listen to a lot of people, and convince them that you’ve heard what they’re saying and explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Kincannon took post-graduate courses at Georgetown University, The George Washington University, and the University of Maryland, but he never earned a graduate degree.
“It was less important in those days,” he said. “Now a master’s, or even a PhD, is far more important.”
Kincannon resided in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area with his wife, Claire, at the time of his passing. He said of his wife, “She is the person who makes it possible for me to cope with my health problems. I could not live independently without her, even with the help of the village movement.”