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GAO cites cost, schedule risks in IT projects supporting census

Three of four technology projects are either behind schedule or over budget, watchdog agency finds.

Information technology projects that support the decennial 2010 census are over budget and behind schedule, according to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office.

The Census Bureau is developing four IT projects to support the census, but three are either behind schedule or over budget, GAO concluded. The one that poses the biggest threat is the Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) project, under which the bureau will outfit 525,000 enumerators with handheld computers loaded with Global Positioning System software to survey individual households that do not return census forms.

The high-risk project is more than $18 million over budget and has had delays in system development and testing of interfaces, according to the GAO report (GAO-08-79), which attributes most of the cost overrun to an increase in system requirements. The original cost of FDCA was $600 million.

The Decennial Response Integration System (DRIS), which will collect and integrate census information from various sources, also is behind schedule, according to GAO. DRIS is on budget but is expected to deliver reduced functionality for the April 2008 dress rehearsal, in which the bureau will test all equipment and business processes needed to carry out the census. More testing may be required later in the process.

A third project, called Data Access and Dissemination System II (DADS II), is also behind schedule. The Census Bureau originally planned to award a contract in 2005, but just awarded it in September.

A fourth IT project, under which the bureau plans to modernize its database for address lists and maps, is on schedule and on budget, GAO reported.

Any problems in developing the IT projects threaten to delay the Census Bureau's 2008 dress rehearsal, when the bureau identifies any corrections it may have to make before initiating the census in April 2010.

"Delays in functionality mean that the dress rehearsal operational testing will take place without the full complement of systems and functionality that was originally planned," according to GAO. "However, bureau officials have not finalized their plans for testing all the systems. . . . Without sufficient testing of all systems and their functionality, the bureau increases the risk that costs will increase further, that decennial systems will not perform as expected, or both."

Another concern is the lack of a large-scale risk management plan, especially given the closely related nature of the various IT systems, said Bob Charette, a risk management consultant and president of Itabhi Corp.

"This is a case of reactive risk management," Charette said. "There is no hierarchy or system-level risk management process that handles everything. It is still a very fragmented approach. It is unclear to me who owns the risk at the total system level, and it appears to me that they are not too far away from approaching crisis-management mode. Because of the compressed schedules, if there is any major hiccup in this rollout, they don't have a lot of extra slack they can use."

GAO called for extensive end-to-end testing of all systems under the direction of the Census Bureau director. GAO also suggested the bureau create a list of potential risks, along with mitigation strategies for the most significant of those risks. And auditors recommended that the bureau hold regular risk briefings with senior executives.

The Census Bureau has said that it plans to test all systems on dress rehearsal day or soon after.