By Jill R. Aitoro
December 12, 2007The Census Bureau has fallen behind in developing information systems to support the 2010 census, increasing the cost of the multibillion-dollar project and the risks that its systems will not work as planned, possibly affecting the accurate collection of data, according to the Government Accountability Office. The computer upgrades are Census' most expansive and costly in decades, which makes the 2010 count one of the riskiest for the bureau. The delays in developing the new systems, detailed in a report GAO released Tuesday, puts the bureau in a position of not being able to completely test system compatibility or check to see if new computer functions and business processes will work as planned. The bureau won't be able to test "the inner relationships of these many systems to make sure they work as a whole" during its key test, called the dress rehearsal, scheduled for May 1, 2008, said David Powner, director of information technology management issues at GAO, who testified Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives. The dress rehearsal essentially will act as a test run for the 2010 census, which is expected to cost $11.5 billion, and require hiring and training 800,000 temporary workers.
Bureau officials say they plan to schedule more tests in 2009 to check how well the systems work from the point of collecting the data in the field to storing, tabulating and analyzing the data in its networks. But Powner said those tests will only increase costs above what they are already and elevate the risk that the bureau will not be prepared to conduct the census, scheduled for April 2010, because problems will not be fixed in time.
Three of the four IT systems the bureau is developing for the 2010 decennial census are behind schedule and over budget. A program to give handheld computers to 500,000 enumerators, who would wirelessly send data collected from interviews conducted in households in the field to Census databases, has fallen behind schedule and has a projected cost overrun of $18 million, according to the GAO report. Holdups and increased costs have been caused by software flaws that delayed the transmission of data and the inability to send large data files, which made the handhelds inoperable at times (See "On the Brink," Government Executive, July 15)
Harris Corp., the contractor developing the handhelds, says it has fixed the software bugs. To work around the problems, Census plans to order more handhelds, which will increase costs by $18 million, according to the GAO.
Also behind schedule is a system that will process data collected from questionnaires Americans mail back to the bureau, telephone interviews and the handheld computers in the field. Specific functions of the system, known as the Decennial Response Integration System, have been delayed, including an application that will provide assistance to those who call to submit data. The bureau also is behind in upgrading the system it uses to tabulate and disseminate data once it is collected because it awarded that contract one year late. Census will have to rely on its old system, known as the Data Access and Dissemination System, during dress rehearsal tests.
The only system not behind schedule is the modernization of the bureau's automated maps and master address file, called the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing database, or TIGER. Census Director Charles Louis Kincannon told the House subcommittee that the delays have been primarily caused by Congress' inability to pass the bureau's fiscal 2008 budget, which started Oct. 1. Like many federal agencies, Census has been operating for almost three months on continuing resolutions, which fund agencies based on fiscal 2007 budget levels. But the bureau's fiscal 2007 budget did not include millions of dollars to continue development of computer systems and funds for the dress rehearsal, which have caused the delays that are highlighted in an October GAO report.
"We cannot buy back time," Kincannon told the subcommittee. "The recent seven-week delay in funding Census programs … forced us to delay and reduce the scope of our dress rehearsal."
Subcommittee Chairman William "Lacy" Clay, D-Mo., said he did not accept Kincannon's excuse that delays in passing fiscal 2008 budgets were to blame. "You've been through this before, and you know that you can never count on a continuing resolution," he said. "You don't get a dress rehearsal in 2010, so we need to get this right."
By Jill R. Aitoro
December 12, 2007