U.S. Census postmortem: An absence of skepticism

Readers typically want breaking news stories to begin with hard facts, not anecdotes, and that is how most news outlets reported the U.S. Census story. And the facts are certainly compelling: A $12.5 billion plan to automate the 2010 census may now cost as much as $3 billion more than planned and accomplish less than envisioned.

But there is one ancedote from the U.S. House hearing Thursday worth sharing.

Despite the big numbers involved, the U.S. House hearing room, where the Census Bureau delivered its bad news, is only half full. Bad news is routine here. Only a handful of the Appropriations subcommittee members are attending and asking most of the questions is U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the subcommittee chairman. On the receiving end is U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

Mollohan is in no mood and lobs criticisms at the Bush Administration and then works his way through the Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, etc. The word Titanic pops up. Best quip on escalating cost and money for contractors: “No bad performance goes unrewarded.” Mollohan’s sarcasm is at full throttle.

Gutierrez knows his role and that’s to take it and stay even. To show any flare at a congressional hearing is to invite the same kind of wrath a seventh grade class can deliver to a substitute teacher. But there is a point when Gutierrez gets a little frustrated and he shows it. Briefly.

Mollohan wants details, line item details, about runaway project costs, including what he calls its “poster child,” the help desk estimate which goes from $37 million to just under $220 million. Mollohan’s got the Census Bureau on a hook on that one and Gutierrez knows it.

Gutierrez calls for his lifeline. He sweeps his arm to the audience and signals to a previously anonymous Census official, Jay Waite, the Census Bureau's deputy director. Waite stands up and approaches the table. He could have given a lot of answers to explain the budget estimates, but instead he said: “It was clear to me that there wasn’t sufficient skepticism.”

The bureau says it is going to change its process to ensure better communication, better questions and planning. It plans to “co-locate” the contractor, Harris Corp., and Census planners in the same room, as well as those workers who will actually use the technology. Gutierrez says he’s going to step up his oversight role as well.

Waite's naked admission was that a central management responsibility – asking hard questions – didn't work. It was the one admission that didn't invite new questions.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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