Census building toward being the gold standard for information

Deputy Director Nancy Potok describes step-by-step how the bureau is transforming to realize its vision.

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By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

The Census Bureau has a vision to be the preeminent, leading statistical agency, building information for the 21st century. Deputy Director Nancy Potok said to realize that vision the bureau had to remake itself and create a culture of innovation and collaboration.

“In the middle of the last century we had a burst of innovation in survey taking and statistics. Many of those people worked at the Census Bureau. It was just a phenomenal time in developing survey methodology and statistical sampling and all of those things,” said Potok during an interview for Agency of the Month. “Since then we’ve spent a lot of our time perfecting those methods. What’s driving us is realizing that with the rapid changes in technology and with people’s thirst for fast information we have to remake ourselves radically, but the challenge is to maintain quality and to continue to be the gold standard for a lot of the information that we put out there.”

Census has a constitutional duty to complete the census every 10 years, but what many don’t know is the bureau also provides more than 70 percent of the information that is used quarterly to calculate the gross domestic product, Potok said. They also put out monthly economic indicators including retail sales, construction starts and housing starts.    

“Our challenge has really been: how do we innovate, remake ourselves to meet the needs of today’s public and policy makers, and yet not fall into that trap that’s out there on the Internet where you don’t even know if the information you’re Googling is accurate or not,” she said. “We want people to know if it’s from the U.S. Census Bureau it’s the gold standard.”

The first step was realizing the vision. Potok said a vision must be clear and simple, something all employees can internalize.

“It’s more than a slogan but it can’t be that traditional vision statement that goes on for a whole paragraph,” she said.

With a vision like the Census’ “We’re building the leading statistical agency for the 21st Century,” Potok said employees can really focus daily on that mission and how they work to accomplish it.

The second step was bringing leadership together as a team.

“That is critical,” said Potok. “The top heads of the business lines—the CFO, the CIO—have got to function as an effective team and share ownership of this and share accountability for the success of the employee engagement.”

She said it’s not enough for the director to just say, “We’re doing this.”

Once the foundation is built with a vision and leadership, then it’s time to prioritize, Potok said.

“When you say ‘do more with less’ it doesn’t force people to prioritize,” she said.

At Census they’ve prioritized innovation in a number of ways. A multimedia internal communications campaign and innovation fairs feature innovators from around the bureau. The Innovation and Operational Efficiency Program gives employees the opportunity to compete for money for high priority projects.

“Taking those innovations, testing them early, doing things like agile development, really bringing to bear some of the best practices in program and project management that were insuring we’ll have everything ready according to our project schedules---well tested ahead of time—and with reengineered business practices that we need,” said Potok.


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