The 2020 census still feels as though it’s a long way away, unless you work for the Bureau of the Census, in which case it feels alarmingly close. The massive decennial project requires tremendous planning and preparation and that’s even more true for the 2020 version, in which the bureau will be forced to perform the same count it did in 2010, but with substantially less money.
The stakes are very high indeed. Census data is used to apportion congressional seats and in the subsequent redistricting that follows its findings. It is also used to inform any number of decisions the federal government makes about targeting aid to the poor and vulnerable, where to place vital infrastructure and more.
Getting the 2020 count right on a lower budget would be a huge headache for the top leadership of the Census Bureau. If, that is, the bureau had top leadership. The director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, abruptly announced his resignation earlier this month, and the position of deputy secretary and chief operating officer has been left empty by the Trump administration. So, for that matter, has the position of under secretary for economic affairs at the Commerce Department, the appointee who oversees the Census Bureau. As of Friday, in fact, Secretary Wilbur Ross was the sole senior appointee in the entire department to have been confirmed.
That leaves nobody with the authority to make hugely consequential decisions about how to allocate resources for the count in 2020.
Unfortunately for the continued functioning of the federal government, this is not an isolated situation. The Trump administration has fallen far behind in the task of appointing people to run the basic day-to-day operations of the federal government. And with a White House in demonstrable turmoil and a president who is now facing multiple investigations into his campaign’s contact with Russian agents, the task of filling more than one thousand presidentially-appointed jobs isn’t going to get any easier.
“That’s a critical point,” said Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president of Research and Evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington. Bulman, whose organization works to encourage talented people to choose government service as a career, said that part of attracting good candidates for government jobs is the ability to “preserve and tell the stories of the really important work that the federal government does.”
However, she added, “When that becomes steeped in negative rhetoric around the federal workforce, it does get harder to recruit the talent that you want.”
The Partnership has identified 557 presidential appointments subject to Senate confirmation that it considers essential to the effective management of the federal government. As of Thursday, Trump has filled just 35 of those jobs and has nominated only 60 others. No president in recent memory has been as far behind the curve as Trump is at this point in his presidency. Of his four predecessors, the worst performer, George W. Bush, had nearly twice as many appointees confirmed, while Barack Obama had nearly four times as many.
Bulman points out that the federal government is not completely leaderless at the agency level. In many cases, career public servants have stepped up as acting deputy secretaries and other roles that put them in charge of making sure critical work gets done.
“But what you’re missing when you just have individuals in these acting roles is people positioned to have the ear of the president and that high-level coordination that exists, as well as really, the ability to make those strategic decisions,” she said.
And that puts a damper on the ability of an agency to act in line with the new administration’s priorities, in some cases even creating paralysis when a lack of guidance makes it difficult to ascertain the administration’s wishes.
For example, she said, “This administration has made a lot of statements about reorganizing the federal government, taking the structures that are in place and really overhauling it. But without individuals in place to help manage that process, it won’t happen and it certainly won’t happen in the right way.”
Whenever President Trump or his representatives are confronted by the fact that they are manifestly failing to staff the federal government, they fall back on the argument that this is a feature of the Trump administration, not a bug. The idea is that Trump plans to shrink the federal government, and he’s starting with executive branch appointments.
Of course, that’s a pretty nonsensical argument. The federal government has more than two million civilian employees. The entire list of 557 key Senate-confirmed positions being tracked by the Partnership constitutes 0.0003 percent of the federal workforce. Any real attempt to streamline the federal government, which is already smaller than it has been in decades, would need people filling those positions to analyze the places most in need of being cut.
But president’s explanation was never about getting at the truth of the slow pace of hiring executive branch officials so much as it was a convenient excuse to cover up his increasingly obvious inability to do so.