My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

USA Today: Census software plagued by defects

Census Director Robert Groves is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week.
Enlarge image Enlarge By Carolyn Kaster, AP
Census Director Robert Groves is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week.

A key software system for the 2010 Census is behind schedule and full of defects, and it will have to be scaled back to ensure an accurate count of the U.S. population, according to a government watchdog report.Even as Census takers have begun the decennial head count in Alaska and other remote areas, the system is still not ready to handle the paperwork and payroll data for what eventually will be a half-million Census takers.

The software to schedule, deploy and pay Census takers is at risk, according to the report released this week by the inspector general for the Commerce Department, which includes the Census Bureau. If changes are not made, the Census risks ballooning costs, delays and inaccuracies.

The Census Bureau must deliver a complete count of the nation’s population to President Obama by Dec. 31. The counts are used to allocate each state’s seats in the House of Representatives every 10 years and more than $400 billion a year in federal aid.

Census forms will be mailed to more than 130 million households next month. One-third are not expected to send them back. Census workers will have to visit all of those addresses to collect demographic information.

The Census got a late start designing a paper-processing system because it initially had planned to equip workers with handheld computers to record data from households that don’t mail back questionnaires.

Those devices were scrapped in 2008 because of technical problems, forcing the bureau to fall back on a paper-based system for door-to-door follow-up visits, the Census’ most expensive phase. So far, the Census Bureau has budgeted $2.74 billion for this phase of the operation and $411 million more in case costs rise.

“This is a risky endeavor,” Census Director Robert Groves says. “We know it. We’re watching it very carefully. We’re trying to manage it.”

Because time is running out, the Census Bureau must work around the system’s shortcomings, according to the inspector general. That could mean printing more administrative forms and speeding up worker training.

The glitches continue despite staff “working two shifts per day, extended hours, weekends and holidays,” the report says.

The audit found that the software had 80 critical defects on Jan. 12, up from 26 a month earlier. Both testing and development were about three weeks behind schedule at that point.

“We now are facing trade-off decisions,” says Groves, who is scheduled to testify before Senate and House committees next week.

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