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Top Census appointee promises more active role in IT management

President Obama's pick to head the Census Bureau told a Senate panel on Friday that he plans to take a personal role in overhauling its information technology strategy and increase the transparency of its operations.

Robert Groves, who currently serves as director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that he would have more of a hands-on management style for IT projects than past bureau directors, and he would back initiatives to encourage research and innovation.

He also said he has no plans to use statistical sampling in the 2010 or 2020 decennial counts, adding he would resign if asked to institute practices that were politically motivated. "More than that, if I resign, after I resign I will be active in stopping the abuse from outside the system," said Groves, who while serving as associate director of the census in 1990 recommended the controversial practice of statistical sampling be used to conduct the undercount.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, criticized the bureau's program to develop handheld computers that it planned to give to census workers to take door to door to count households that had not returned paper forms. Census announced in April 2008 that it will not use the handhelds after their development fell behind schedule, ran over budget and did not perform as planned.

"It's really been appalling, after spending literally billions of dollars and much time, the Census Bureau scrapped its plans to use handheld technology for nonresponse follow-up due to significant performance problems and a loss of confidence in its contractors," Collins said.

She asked Groves how he would correct problems associated with the handhelds. He said the IT issues stemmed partly from management issues and partly from an absence of research and development. Groves said he would ask the bureau's top leaders to become involved in all future IT projects.

"It seems clear in my part of the IT world, large-scale surveys, that successful hardware and software development has the user involved at the beginning, middle and end," he said, adding the traditional model of developing a list of requirements and waiting for the product to be built no longer works. "Leadership at Census can't walk away from these contracts; they must be involved. This way you build a little piece, if it's not satisfactory, you throw it away."

He said he has seen expansion of a project's scope, called "requirements creep," in software projects and it's usually due to benign lapses. Frequent dialogue between the contractor and the bureau is necessary to complete projects on time and within budget, Groves said.

Groves said he would create a research arm for the bureau to determine the best ways to collect and analyze data for its surveys. Without evaluating new techniques and technology, Census likely would fall behind the technological curve and eventually would not be able to produce accurate data.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, asked Groves about the recent report from the Commerce Department's inspector general that found the bureau was not properly training field workers. Groves said he has not been briefed on how workers have been trained, but said it is an area he is interested in.

Akaka, as well as Collins and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., indicted they were in favor of approving Groves' nomination, and Carper said the full Senate likely would vote to appoint Groves as director.

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