Another large government IT project goes down in flames

According to a story today from news service Breitbart, the Census Bureau is abandoning its quest to make the 2010 Census the first "digital" Census. A Census official is slated to tell a Congressional subcommittee that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars with vendor Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Florida, the solution -- handheld devices running special Census software -- has only a fraction of the functionality the Bureau thought it would have.

The Census Bureau was seeking the "holy grail" of Census enumeration -- namely, the fully digital process of knocking on doors, asking questions, recording the answers on a ruggedized PDA and uploading the results in real-time to the Census Bureau's mainframes. Instead of the Holy Grail, the Bureau has encountered the IT equivalent of the Knights Who Say, "NI!"

In this case, the Knights manifest themselves as pesky requirements that always seem to get in the way of a good idea. And demanding a shrubbery.

Besides their newfound use as a door knocker or as a weapon to ward off mean dogs, those expensive handheld appliances will now only be used for address verification.

It's not the first snafu for the Census Bureau. It recently announced it also wanted to skip the process of fingerprinting and checking the backgrounds and criminal histories of its enumerators.

Now, let's think about that for a moment. The Census Bureau will hire some 600,000 temp workers for the 2010 Census. All will handle sensitive data. And most of these temps will travel in neighborhoods, going door-to-door, asking questions and taking down the most sensitive personal information possible.

They will be invited willingly into peoples' homes with official US Government ID badges, sitting on the sofa or at families' kitchen tables, asking questions about family income, numbers of family members and their ages and gender, and other sensitive issues. Some enumerators will probably be given "long form" questionnaires that delve into even greater detail. And the Bureau wants to waive fingerprinting and background checks?

We have a description of the people in Washington who are asking for that waiver of criminal history checks. We call them clueless. Or short-sighted. Or just plain foolish. Or far worse.

I understand the agency's workload, which is monumental. That does not excuse the potential jeopardy American families might find themselves in, nor does it excuse the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment that will serve no better purpose than to act as a handheld Garmin.

Harris may or may not be the villain here. I met with Harris executives a year ago as a courtesy to get briefed on this project, due to my past experience with the Census and my continuing interest in Census operations. It looked promising. But while there may not be a villain, there is most certainly a culprit. It is a familiar one. It is the old "requirements snafu," where the buyer cannot tell the seller exactly what they want. I am pretty confident there is a significant amount of "scope creep" to be found as well.

You would think that with all the money and all the "expertise" and all the attention allegedly paid to IT projects in Washington DC, somebody there would be able to write a bulletproof requirements document. It is Project Management 101. Detailed specifications. Strong expectations of performance. Specific deliverables (the favorite word of government procurement specialists).

Also, where was the project oversight? Where was the Congressional oversight? GAO? Federal CIO Council? How about the Census Bureau's Inspector General?

I recently had lunch with a good friend of mine, someone with the responsibility for oversight of government IT projects. He recounted a story of a government agency that wanted to fire its project's IT contractor. When my friend asked for the project plan in question, he was eventually rewarded with a three-ring binder, bulging with over 500 pages of plans.

The requirements section? A page and a half.

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