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Census Director Groves says computer glitches fixed

The top Census Bureau executive said on Tuesday that the agency has fixed glitches that caused major outages in a computer system that manages information collected by census takers.

Census Director Robert Groves told Nextgov that the bureau enlisted developers to work with agency staff to solve the problem.

The problems occurred in the paper-based operations control system and could drive up costs beyond the $15 billion the bureau estimates it will cost to conduct the 2010 decennial count, according to a report from the Commerce Department's inspector general that was released last week.

"In the past four days there have been dramatic improvements," Groves said.

He did not disclose how much the repairs cost but added that investments in the system "cost a lot less money than it would have cost if that system didn't work."

He added, "The problem with the system created a backlog of completed work being checked in. The impact of these problems will be on the backend processing."

The cost of sending out part-time workers to travel door to door to visit households that failed to complete and send back a census form remains at about $85 million for each percentage point of households that did not mail back a form, he said. That works out to about $2.38 billion because 28 percent of households did not mail back their forms by the April 27 due date.

On other topics, Groves said the next decennial census should offer an online option, which Congress has pushed the bureau to consider for years. "I can't conceive 2020 without it," he said. But he added that the bureau should proceed cautiously as it weighs procurement options because "nobody knows what the 2020 Internet will look like."

"There are pressures in DC to lock into [software] designs very early and say how much you are going to spend on the 2020 [census] before you know what you're going to do," he said. "These pressures have to be managed carefully."

Groves supported the Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., to make the job of the Census director a five-year, term-limited position to promote continuity across administrations and alleviate the fears of partisanship in the bureau.

Groves said it was problematic that so many census directors had been appointed in years ending with a nine - the year before the bureau began one of its largest undertaking, the decennial count. "To say that's a good way to run this place, you must believe that the place is better off without a director," he said.

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