IT problems still hound Census as it readies count

GAO warns needed fixes to major systems might not be finished before it starts counting citizens who didn't return forms, but bureau officials say they will be ready in time.

Census Bureau officials say they are cautiously optimistic that the computer systems it built for the 2010 decennial count will work as planned, but critics doubt the systems will be able to handle the demand as hundreds of thousands of census takers hit the streets in April.

Witnesses at a House hearing on Thursday gave mixed reviews of how prepared the bureau is to count the citizens who have not sent back census forms. Two critical database systems still are not working as planned, and time to test and fix defects is running out, witnesses told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee.

One of the networks not operating smoothly is the Decennial Applicant Personnel and Payroll System that issues payments to the more than 600,000 temporary employees who will travel door to door in the coming weeks, visiting households that have not filled out a census form. That system has been sluggish when trying to manage fewer accounts than what it will handle when in full operation in April, said Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. Another system, the Paper-Based Operations Control System, which processes census forms, also has shown limited functionality, he said.

The bureau has experienced numerous technical problems in the years leading up to the decennial census. It struggled to develop handheld computers that enumerators could use to collect data in the field and send it immediately back to headquarters, but hardware and software glitches, along with missed deadlines and cost overruns, forced officials to drop the devices in April 2008 in favor of its traditional paper-based process.

Census officials testified in February that software defects threatened the rollout of these two IT systems. Arnold Jackson, Census' associate director, said on Thursday the bureau is developing workarounds scheduled to be completed by April 4, when the technology will have to be operational in the field.

"[We have] network configurations that are very powerful but somewhat new to us, [so we] have brought in consultants from each of those vendors to make sure the way we're using their technology is appropriate," he said.

The bureau must solve a number of problems, including meeting the fixed dates by which it must begin operations, completing additional testing and addressing more defects if found, according to Goldenkoff.

"In the end, there are these immutable deadlines, and the workload that needs to be done, and from what we're seeing right now it's going to be a challenge to complete all the testing to complete the workload in time for these operations to start," he said.

In addition, the bureau has few employees working to maintain the new systems, and they might not be able to fix defects that they have identified and address any new ones that surface, Goldenkoff said.

If Census gets behind schedule, it also will see costs increase. Jackson said the bureau believes it will be on time and under budget for its nonresponse follow-up activities.

But GAO's Goldenkoff warned, "There's time, but it's running out. That's the bottom line."