Census Bureau's paperless census may end up in wastebasket

Officials scrambling to meet an IT deadline they can't change: the 2010 census

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday said the U.S. Census plan to create a "virtually paperless" counting process is at "high risk," meaning it now joins a GAO dishonor roll of government IT projects in trouble for mismanagement and waste.

Census officials agree that there are serious problems with their plans to combine information technologies, including wireless handhelds, Global Positioning Systems, and back-end automation, to improve census accuracy and reduce costs.

The Founding Fathers wrote a requirement for a national decennial census into the U.S. Constitution -- it is, in a sense, one of the oldest IT deadlines around. But with the clock ticking, Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of the Department of Commerce (the department which oversees the Census Bureau), all but declared the project mismanaged in his written testimony (PDF format) Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Gutierrez's testimony cited "significant miscommunication" and "lack of clarity" between the Census Bureau and Harris Corp., the prime contractor, in defining technical requirements. Harris received a $595 million contract for the project in 2006. In regard to the handheld devices, for instance, Gutierrez said "discrepancies arose" over data upload times, screen change speed and data storage capabilities.

"There are concerns about potential delays, there are also concerns about the quality of the census," said David Powner, director of information technology issues at the GAO, in a telephone interview. The Census Bureau has asked for more than 400 changes in the requirements since signing its contract with Harris in 2006, said Powner, about a fifth of them specifically related to the handhelds.

Census officials said they will nonetheless run a successful census in 2010. The GAO isn't similarly confident.

The outlook for cost overruns is likewise bleak -- the GAO report says there's already been $6 million in overruns, and more are expected.

Steve Murdock, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, outlined the options (PDF format) before the Senate committee. According to his written testimony, those options range from moving ahead with the technology to reverting to a paper-based system. Murdock was confirmed for that post in January.

There are 27 other IT projects on GAO's list of high risk IT endeavors (PDF format) including systems managed by the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Aviation Administration.

Harris spokesman Marc Raimondi, spokesman for the Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp., issued this statement: "It is not unusual for programs of this size and length to encounter some customer requests for additional requirements that they feel best enables them to accomplish their mission. Managing those changes is challenging, however we remain totally committed to supporting the Census Bureau's efforts to have a successful, automated 2010 decennial census."

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