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.

Census Bureau IT problems remain unresolved

Finally, a source other than MyTwoCensus.com has noticed and reported on the multitude of IT failures at the Census Bureau. H/t to Edwin Mora of CNSNews.com for the following piece…but hopefully the mainstream media — not just Conservative media outlets like CNSNews — will start to address these problems:

Census Still Struggling With IT Problems That May Affect Count’s Accuracy
Friday, April 30, 2010
By Edwin Mora


Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves. (AP Photo/U of Mich.,Paul Jaronski)
(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Census Bureau is still having problems with its computer system that handles the data for households that did not return a census form. However, the Census Bureau director said the system has successfully printed out the assignments for the enumerators who will conduct in-person interviews with households that did not mail in their forms.

“We continue to struggle with the software system called the paper-based operation control system, but we passed, just amazingly, a wonderful threshold last week where we printed out assignments for all these enumerators,” said Census Bureau Director Robert Groves. “It worked.”

The Census director made the comments at a press briefing on the Census participation rate, which took place at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday.

Groves said the Bureau is not fond of its paper-based operation control system (PBOCS), which is used to manage the non-response follow-up (NRFU). The NRFU, set to begin May 1, is the Census’ largest operation and involves census workers personally interviewing millions of people nationwide who did not respond to the mailed Census questionnaire.

“Slightly more than 72 percent of U.S. households believed to be occupied mailed back their 2010 Census forms, the same rate that was achieved in 2000,” the U.S. Census Bureau announced on Apr. 28.

“Not that it is the most loved piece of software in the Census Bureau, but it’s working well enough to get the census down so far,” said Groves.

“We have assignments ready for 600,000 people who are ready to hit the streets on Saturday,” he added. “So we’re proceeding.”

According to a Mar. 25 Government Accountability Office report entitled, “Data Collection is Under Way, But Reliability of Key Information Technology Systems Remains a Risk,” the Census Bureau was experiencing problems with two IT systems, one of which is the paper-based operation control system that Groves mentioned during the press conference.

The GAO reported last February that “key IT systems — most notably an automated system used to manage field data collection known as the Paper-Based Operations Control System (PBOCS) and a personnel and payroll processing system called the Decennial Applicant Personnel and Payroll System (DAPPS) — were experiencing significant performance issues.”

On Thursday, Robert Goldenkoff, the director of strategic issues for the GAO and author of the March 25 GAO report on the IT problems affecting the Census, told CNSNews.com:  “The [paper based] operational control system used to manage the field follow-up operation was still having stability issues last week; the Census Bureau continues to work on it.”

On Mar. 25, Judith Gordon, the principal assistant inspector general for Audit and Evaluation at the Department of Commerce, which runs the Census Bureau, testified about the IT problems affecting the Census before Congress, saying that the Census’ decennial count’s accuracy was “at risk” because of IT issues.

“IT problems place the efficiency and accuracy of Non-Response Follow-Up at risk and final decennial costs remain uncertain,” Gordon told lawmakers, and as CNSNews.com reported. Gordon had testified before a subcommittee on the Census of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In the same Mar. 25 GAO report, Goldenkoff revealed that “an estimated 50 million housing units out of a mail-out universe of about 120 million” would be non-respondents and would require an in-person follow-up to count. The operating budget for the NRFU is $2.7 billion.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution calls for a decennial enumeration (census) of the American people to be used for allocating U.S. House seats among the states.

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4 Responses to “Census Bureau IT problems remain unresolved”

  1. Paul Melvin Says:

    As only a rhetorical question:

    Now just how did we come to move ALL operations from the ether-world and onto papyrus, after spending so much time and energy on the former? An observation at our office is that if we were able to use any of the HHC’s capabilities- cleaning them out just for payroll (as in ADD_CAN), especially, we’d free up a dozen clerks and machines wasting time on DAPPS and D-308s (the 8-1/2×11 daily timesheet, for those outside), and PBOCS might actually run in less than six moons per AA. As the CLs have to sign off on this stuff anyway, how’s about giving them an hour of OT over all those clerks wearing our their fingers overnight…? CL gets time records, enters into HHC… rubricators in office, now out of the payroll loop, can make prettier maps for less money- and maybe less frantic catching up would give time to think- do we really want to waste all this paper?. Only an idea… if a dumb one, please forget it. But then, while on IT, in one region, “Open House Photos” show up on FDCA in at least THREE directories-and all different sets of photos. My dog could probably put these in one place. If IT here were credible, couldn’t this have been unitized somehow?

    While on tangential smart ideas:

    [Just as Stalin shot his time-tested generals for their being overwhelmed by the Germans, and as easy as it is to beat up various directors (and I don't minimalize anyone's observation to that end- I think it's valid to take issue with what he says for what it is)- take a look at the stew this operation is, and again I think you'll find the built-in error manufactory. How many ITdiots had a hand in DALT? This was run from a script on 11x17 paper- written, scrapped, and re-written several times. We threw out reams of this stuff- one volume for each workstation- that were NEVER even read. That's not refinement; that's blindness, and waste not at the agency's central level, but from putting so much blanket authority in the hands of temp people who don't care, while saying "Do this NOW!"- our AMT is now gone into the private sector, having told us the day he was leaving. Then again, he was also using the fax machine for his church's business, in violation of Ethics Rules (I presume he could read the Summary of Ethics Rules... what is it? D-186?), and lying through his teeth about what he needed on the job.

    That's not Dr. Groves, Mr. Monaghan or the Regional Director; it's built into the nature of this office. Ditto Harris Corp. They got a contract, and can do as much Blackwater as they want after that, reaming us, that's you, me and Whistler's Mother, for their patches along the way-while those at the very top, naturally out of touch by their distance to the gritty level, have to dance for the press and public to keep their jobs. Sure it's easy to blame them, but do they really know what's going on at every step, or are they swamped in sharks out to make some cash and then jet- do we think that these leaders had a hand in everything they entrusted the commission of to competent "experts" in their fields? I surely hope not.

    [Why WAS that employee fired for actually caring about safety anyway? That example is cited to illuminate the haphazard, left-to-the-whim-of-some-clever-idiot nature by which the whole gig is running.]

    The more we leave this operation in the hands of some of the clowns we do, the more messed up by someone’s ecstatic dip recipe it’ll become, instead of a smoothly-constructed, focused approach run by professionals.

    Census DOES have some real pros, even in their efforts to just do well at all. I interact with them daily, and they are the ones who keep me on at all. Even the spies leaking photos of waste are credible people, who take some pride in this show, and struggle to improve it more than run it down. I’d say, for all the trouble this seems to be, it’s a great agency that can pull so many people, including those who should be watching Oprah instead, together and make anything fly in the end- it just needs a big housecleaning (purge, if you must). Get your value of the HHC for what it can do, and scrap half these forms while you’re at it. Even our inventory is weighed down with paper. We need to write out Small Purchase Requests- but only after the previous trial and error of a couple different (save about 10 entries one one) online order forms that weren’t, a “use this to order this stuff” that couldn’t… and still sending in all the packing lists- or, in their absence- cutting off the labels on the boxes, sticking them to the back of some other form, and sending that mess in for a free toy from the cereal company (it sounds like)- and then someone at RCC has to decipher all this junk into a useful record that we actually got those erasers? And NPC is burning round the clock to meet demands from all points- and doing great in spite of it. We DO have many good people, we just need to sort the chaff out.

    There’s little defined standard anywhere, unless you make one up. First it’s do this way, then do that way- all bellowed with authority by someone who shouldn’t be there (or was handed the command to do so under threat of replacement). This can’t have been Dr. G.’s idea.

    All these groovy forms! And with directions like “use this for this; read the book on this one” when the book says “don’t use this one for this; use this one for THAT, and that one for this…” We heard that in two regions there was under a 20% compliance with ordering procedure. Duh.

    Then ask the Germans why they lost with enough different tanks to rival Baskin Robbins’ flavors, and American watchmakers about the virtues of interchangeability of parts. It’s a systemic problem at Census. We’re divided and conquered.

    Let Dr. G. do his boss thing over truly qualified people. Please take authority from anyone who happens to klutz into the right answers on these bogus tests (instead retaining fewer, good people, and dumping half of the middle managers), or sells the government a juicy catch-all contract, and try, after 220 years of practice, to leave its stewardship to proven leaders. Please dig out the root of the problem, and I promise you’ll see an improvement. You can purge me if you don’t.

  2. Michael C. Cook Says:

    Here’s what the U.S. Census Bureau has to say about this:

    The change to a paper-based NRFU operation ordered two years ago by then-Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, required us to develop PBOCS in a compressed time-frame. Outside of a war-time deployment, there is no comparable scaling up of an operational control software system to be employed for a one time use, with limited time for testing. This required a strategy for developing the system in phases and conducting testing while implementing.

    The heavy use of this system began last week, when we produced millions of pages of worker assignment materials in time for the May 1 start of our door-to-door operations.

    PBOCS has also been central to our ability to ensure that we are getting responses from every household, and its management functions are supporting our operations. For example, PBOCS was effectively used to manage the work of census workers as they counted people living in Remote Alaska and updated our address list while leaving a questionnaire for households in rural areas during Update/Leave. All of these operations began on time and were managed successfully with PBOCS,

    We have been completely transparent about PBOCS, and proactively disclosed to oversight committees in Congress the status they system. We have also invited representatives of the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Commerce and the Government Accountability Office to be present daily in our meetings where we are managing PBOCS. These oversight agencies are receiving real time reporting about the status of PBOCS.

  3. GS-X Says:

    Michael C. Cook,

    How about some clarification of “software system to be employed for a one time use”?
    Does that mean Census management figured no one would notice the PBOCS defects because PBOCS would be used for only a few months?

    “conducting testing while implementing” sounds like no testing at all.

    Who told you to tell us PBOCS “management functions are supporting our operations”?
    How do you expect readers of this blog to believe that?

    Alaska is not a system load test. It is a sparsely populated state. RA and UL are not NRFU and might not
    exercise the NRFU parts of PBOCS. Using PBOCS for national NRFU in April and May puts a much greater load on PBOCS than using PBOCS for Remote Alaska in January and February.

    You will be completely transparent about PBOCS when citizens say you are.
    The Census Bureau pays you to shield Arnold Jackson from accountability. That’s not transparency.

    Are the GAO, the IG, and SRM allowed to visit any LCO they choose to observe PBOCS?

    Purge the flacks!!!

  4. Jollyd Says:

    Having worked as a QA analyst/tester professionally and now as a clerk PBOCS user, in a very dense city on the east coast, that the load testing, stress testing, functional testing, user interface testing and user sanity testing is going just fine (5/4/2010).
    No suicides yet but we’re keeping the nets up just in case. Besides the boys down the street might need them if the market continues to “correct”.
    I find that Excel spreadsheets are a functional alternative while PBOCS is spitting, whinning and being generally disagreeable-got a “FATAL ERROR” today (how exciting). Yes, the testing ought to be complete BEFORE release.But seriously, am I wrong to suspect that this scandal (and that’s what it is) is just another example of George W. Bush administration incompetence (whether by design or worse)? Now Pres. O. will have to answer for it. Cooel!

    In closing:
    Imagine a dusty office with 40-60 people all as smart as Paul Melvin, and as long winded, giving just that kind of answer to the question: have you finished the FOSD ## registers?
    Next time pull from the bottom percentile to get the production work done, not the top percentile.