2010 U.S. census will be 'most expensive' ever, officials say

Estimated $14B cost includes $3B for IT gear; census cost $44,000 in 1790 -- with no IT

A government watchdog agency is sending up warning flares about the readiness of U.S. Census Bureau IT systems being used in the 2010 census project, which is set to begin on April 1 of next year.

In a report released yesterday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office predicted (download PDF) that the 2010 census will be "the most expensive census in the nation's history, even after adjusting for inflation." The Census Bureau has estimated the total cost of the project at more than $14 billion. The first U.S. census was conducted in 1790 at a cost of $44,000 and counted 3.9 million people. (See chart showing cost of past censuses.)

The cost of the 2010 census includes $3 billion for IT equipment, the GAO noted.

One of the biggest costs for the Census Bureau is for the 600,000 temporary workers needed to collect data from an 47 million households not expected to respond to mailed questionnaires. The bureau had planned to use handheld computers for that effort, but it was forced to revert to paper-based follow-up surveys after testing turned up problems with the handhelds. The bureau's decision to use paper adds up to $3 billion to the total cost of the census, the GAO said.

The Census Bureau turned to the paper-based polling plan to "reduce the risk of system or operational failure," Thomas Mesenbourg, the agency's acting director, told a U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee yesterday.

Mesenbourg, in prepared testimony (download PDF), also told the committee that all census systems and interfaces will be tested in time to keep the census on schedule. The Census Bureau "is on solid ground as the 2010 census begins," he added.

While the government faces an unmovable Dec. 31, 2010, deadline to complete the census, the deadlines for completing tests on IT systems critical to the process continue to slip, according to the GAO report.

The GAO warned that "decreasing time available for completing end-to-end testing increases" the risk that testing of key operations will not be completed on time.

James White, the Census Bureau's associate undersecretary for management, responded that the the bureau is refocusing its testing process on new software and systems and "not on things that have worked before."

"While risks remain, we are managing those risks," wrote White.

In a report released last March, the GAO had placed the census automation project on its "high risk" list, after census officials said that cost overruns of as much as $3 billion would bring the total cost to more than $14 billion.

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