Census Bureau director Robert Groves is stepping down, having overseen a 2010 census praised as successful but raising questions about the future stewardship of an agency grappling with ballooning costs and potential cuts to government surveys.
In a statement Tuesday, Groves said he will leave the post in August to become provost of Georgetown University. He has been census director since 2009, during which he led the agency's once-a-decade count of the nation's population, which was generally well-regarded for being accurate and coming $1.9 billion under budget.
The cost of the census was originally budgeted at roughly $15 billion.
"I am honored by the opportunity to help lead Georgetown to even greater heights than it already enjoys," Groves said. "I am confident that the current and future leadership of the Census Bureau is devoted to cost-efficient excellence in providing the key economic and social statistical information the country so deeply needs."
Groves' departure, occurring at a time of transition for the Census Bureau and just before the November presidential elections, comes at a politically tricky time. It will leave a vacancy until President Barack Obama nominates a new director who is subject to Senate confirmation.
In years past, presidents have been sometimes slow to successfully replace a census director, leaving the post vacant for many months. If no immediate successor is found, the current deputy director, Tom Mesenbourg, would lead the Census Bureau in the interim.
In recent months following completion of the 2010 census, Groves, a former professor and director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, has made clear that a major reorganization of census operations was needed to avoid rising costs to a decennial survey that he called "unsustainable."
Those changes include establishing a new research director to boost the accuracy, innovation and prestige of the agency's statistical data, as well as moving the Census Bureau to greater use of the Internet in conducting surveys. No Internet option existed in the 2010 census, contributing to rising costs of mailing out surveys and following up door-to-door when people did not respond. Congress recently has trimmed the agency's budget, resulting in cuts to many of the Census Bureau's regional offices. Some House Republicans are also now examining whether to limit other surveys based on concerns about privacy and what they consider intrusive questioning.
The Census Bureau's population count, conducted every 10 years and updated annually with administrative records, are used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid for hospitals, roads, schools and playgrounds.
"I think Dr. Groves has been an outstanding director _ straightforward, transparent, knowledgeable," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Census oversight subcommittee who is now co-director of The Census Project, a coalition of advocacy and statistical groups who promote an accurate census. "The broad stakeholder community respects him greatly and will miss his leadership at a critical time."