Meet John H. Thompson, U.S. Census Bureau Director
Amstat News invited John H. Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about him and the agency he leads.
A statistician and executive, John Thompson has been president and CEO of NORC at the University of Chicago since 2008. He served as the independent research organization’s executive vice president from 2002–2008.
What about this position appealed to you?
As some of your readers probably know, I am actually returning to the Census Bureau for the second time in my career and I’m really excited about our future. I spent 27 years at the Census Bureau, and my final job was director of the 2000 Census. After I retired, I joined the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago and had a great experience in the private sector. I returned to the Census Bureau because I saw there were important opportunities to make critical improvements in the way we conduct the census and surveys.
In 2000, we didn’t have the technology to equip field representatives with smartphones and tablets. In fact, we used the same basic design as the 1990 Census, and the Census Bureau used that design again in 2010. It’s incredible to think that, with these devices, we can reengineer our fieldwork. Instead of sending the enumerators out with a stack of questionnaires and then meeting each day to collect the work, we will be able to assign cases intelligently, get the data back in real time, and gather all the important payroll information. We also will not be sending an enumerator out to a household that just remembered to send their questionnaire in after the deadline. We will have a way to remove those cases from our workload. These don’t sound like big changes, but I can assure you technology has a big role to play in the 2020 Census that will save the taxpayers money.
Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the U.S. Census Bureau.
While it seems like I spend a lot of my time talking about the 2020 Census and design changes, what I really want to do across the entire agency is encourage a culture that is continuously self-evaluative, adaptable, and innovative. I also think that making our data more easily accessible and developing new relevant products, including those for the business community, is extremely critical at this time.
What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) for the Census Bureau?
These are exciting times, and we have many opportunities to introduce improvements and innovations to the way we do our business, involving not only the great staff at the Census Bureau, but our colleagues across the statistical agencies. However, there seems to be so little time to accomplish what I see as critical goals for our agency.
What kind of support from the statistical community do you look for?
One of the things that has not changed since my previous tenure at the Census Bureau is the great collaboration we have with the statistical community (through formal advisory bodies, Committee on National Statistics panels, conferences, informal discussions, etc.) across all of our disciplines, including our economic, demographic, decennial, and IT areas. I also would note that I am pleased there is a lot of work going on with respect to “Big Data” both in the federal statistical system and in the community at-large.
Prior to your tenure, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishment of the agency?
It’s hard to pick one accomplishment, so here are three. I think delivering the 2010 Census was a major accomplishment; I know how hard and how big the decennial is to conduct. The 2012 Economic Census has been the exemplar within the agency about how to use the Internet effectively. Finally, the Census Bureau has been making the right decisions about how integrate its IT functions across the agency so we are no longer just thinking about one-off systems for each census or survey. This is an important innovation that will pay dividends by allowing us to conserve our resources to tackle the challenge of delivering relevant data for an ever-changing nation.