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Census computer glitch could jeopardize count

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 11:09 a.m. ET
Frequent glitches with the computer system built to manage the 2010 Census could jeopardize its accuracy and drive up costs beyond its $15 billion price tag, according to a new watchdog report.

The findings by the Commerce Department's inspector general come as roughly 600,000 census takers fan out nationwide to visit about 48 million addresses where nobody mailed back a census form.

The quarterly progress report found that problems persist with the agency's paper-based operations control system, a computer program developed to manage data collected by census takers. Several local Census Bureau offices are experiencing outages of several hours to entire days, the report said.

Those delays contributed to $1.6 million spent on clerical overtime costs in the first quarter, and the cost will likely rise in the next two months as census takers complete their work, the report said.

Computer delays also mean that local census offices could misplace complete paper questionnaires that cannot be processed right away.

"Questionnaires can be misplaced, for example, by storing them with questionnaires that have already been checked in," the report said. If those forms are not processed, "the persons identified in the questionnaires may not be counted."

The report reinforces concerns raised last week by the Government Accountability Office during a Congressional hearing on census operations.

The Census Bureau developed the computer system in 2008 after scrapping plans to use handheld computers built for the agency. The decision left little time to develop the new software and officials have since admitted it would likely post the most risk to census operations.

"As we have publicly disclosed to Congress, our oversight agencies and the press, the operational control system is not optimal, and remains a risk," Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner said in an e-mail. "However we do not foresee cost overruns of the type speculated upon in this report."

Census Director Robert Groves has vowed to keep census operations under budget in hopes of returning excess funds to the Treasury. But he acknowledged potential operational issues this week in a blog post written to his 600,000 new hires.

"Nothing as large as the decennial census can be trouble-free," Groves said. "Despite the years of development, things will go wrong."

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 6, 2010; 9:58 AM ET
Categories:  Census  
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For the amount of money Census appears to have spent for this effort, they should have purchased iPhones for the census takers, and built a census-worker reporting app that automatically linked back to a central database. The idea that they are still paper-based is frightening. I think sometimes the greatest hindrance for both the people and the businesses of this country is the slowness with which the government adopts modernity.

Posted by: DeLaHelias | May 6, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I work. I never received a census form. The guy comes every day when my wife and I are at work. He then leaves a barely legible notice in my mailbox to call him and it says the best time is 1-5pm.

Well, you see, I work. I'm never going to be there if you keep coming when I work. And I'm not going to call you to answer your questions when I am at work. Never-mind the fact that I can't read your chicken scratch so I wouldn't know who to call anyway.

Posted by: member8 | May 6, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

First re DeLattelias: unless I missed something in reading this article - the Census did attempt to automate using handhelds but the effort failed, the problems here are with the alternate system they had to put in place.

Of course none of this would be an issue if people had simply returned their forms in a timely fashion.

Second re member 8: if you didn't get a form a telephone number was published that you could have called to rectify the problem. Obviously the person attempting to contact you is not following procedures - if they can't reach you during the day try evenings or weekends.

Please keep in mind that this is a tremendously huge undertaking which requires the cooperation of all parties involved. Accuracy depends on everyone making an effort, census employees and the population at large!

Posted by: vagaf31 | May 6, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Ok, blame it on the American people. 15 BILLION!!!!! There is so much opportunity for fraud, and I am SURE the current administration will take full advantage of it. I am not confident that I will be be counted, as I do not fit in to their desired voting patterns.

Posted by: eaglesnest1 | May 6, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

You are incorrect about enumerators getting overtime. I completed training two weeks ago and we were specifically told, verbatim "if you get overtime without first approving it by your local office you will be fired." After that - "so basically, don't focus on overtime, ONLY WORK 40 HOURS OR LESS." There shouldn't be any overtime at all.

Posted by: AB12 | May 6, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

No one said anything about overtime - you work at the times you can get the job done; if you can't complete your job between 8 and 5...try 1 to 9!

Posted by: vagaf31 | May 6, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

"EAGLESNEST" - sounds more like the cackling of a chicken coop to me.

But that could just be the signal coming through the tin foil hat.


I'm beginning to wonder if having our first black president is worth listening to 4 years or more of these conspiracy people and whining people and negative people and racist people.

It's gotten real old - they just keep recycling the same whines and the same conspiracies, screaming their fears to anyone on any website as if we should all care about and help these poor victims of mental disease.

I'll pony up money for bunkers to store them all in.

But they must be built soundproof. :)

Posted by: lquarton | May 6, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

No less than I expected and the overruns are no big surprise. After all it is a government project. What else can you expect when there is no leadership from the top down?

Posted by: Upjoe | May 6, 2010 11:43 PM | Report abuse

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