GAO: Census Bureau far from ready

By Max Cacas

At the end of this month, the Census Bureau is expected to begin the first operational phase – setting up a massive address list – for the upcoming 2010 Census. And the next constitutionally-mandated decennial count of the nation’s population is itself a little more than one year away. Two Congressional committees held hearings Thursday to determine if the Census Bureau is ready.

The verdict, after hearings in both the House and the Senate subcommittees with direct jurisdiction over the Census, is that depending on who you talk to, the glass is either half-full, or half-empty.

On the one hand, there is Thomas Mesenbourg, the acting director of the Census, who told the House Census subcommittee that everything is essentially fine, and the problems of the census are all being taken care of:


I can report we are on the way to a successful enumeration. A complete and accurate address list is the cornerstone of a successful census. Throughout the decade, we regularly update the list we had in Census 2000. In 2007, we invited tribal, state, and local governments to review our address lists for accuracy and completeness. Address canvassing, the first activity of the 2010 Census, starts on March 30th, and runs through July of 2009.

The GAO’s comments are the latest to highlight difficulties for the census, which now costs $14 billion and has been beset by partisan bickering. Disagreements over the handling of the census were part of the reason GOP Sen. Judd Gregg, President Barack Obama’s pick as commerce secretary, withdrew his name last month.

However, the Government Accountability Office has other thoughts on the matter. Robert Goldenkoff heads up Strategic Issues for the GAO, and issued a report yesterday saying the Census Bureau is playing beat the clock, with very little margin for error:

The bureau has made commendable progress in rolling out key components of the census, and has strengthened certain risk management efforts. Still, the census remains high risk because a dress rehearsal of all census operations that was planned for 2008 was curtailed. As a result, activities, including some that will be used for the first time in the Census were not tested in concert with one another, or under census-like conditions.

And the GAO’s David Powner, who analyzes Information Technology, has an even harsher assessment of the Census bureau’s IT.

“Our report contains 10 detailed recommendations that the bureau has agreed to address,” he testified before both committees. ” For example, our investigation shows that not only were there not plans for this testing, but there was not even a master list or inventory of the interfaces. Not having such basic information is unacceptable.”

Reports from both the GAO and the Mitre corporation, which serves as a consultant to the Census Bureau, have also expressed concern over the readiness of key systems dealing with the use of those hand-held computers for one part of the census, and the paper-based non-response follow up (NRFU) phase of the census. Dr. Laurence Brown, who chairs a Committee on National Statistics with the National Academy of Science, told a Senate subcommittee yesterday afternoon that the Census Bureau decision to scrap the use of the handhelds in the second phase of the census fuels his uncertainty.

Because the decision to revert from hand-held computers to a paper-based NRFU, this was a gap in census testing. Because it wasn’t tested, the dress rehearsal provided no information on NRFU with the re-designed wasn’t going to provide information on interaction with various other census component. Such lack of testing puts the bureau in a very risky position.

Mesenbourg acknowledged the bureau was facing special challenges of counting minorities as well as a record number of people displaced from their homes due to the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

He said the bureau would be spending part of the $1 billion it received in the economic stimulus package for expanded advertising and partnership programs with community leaders that are specifically aimed at improving outreach on the local level.

Layered upon all this uncertainty with the back-office functions of the Census is the fact that the bureau still does not have a new director, and the delays in confirming the Secretary of Commerce, the parent agency for the Census Bureau. This, as the census is poised to begin the address canvass phase – essentially drawing up the massive address list of every residence in the country – within a few short weeks, at the end of this month.

(Copyright 2009 by All Rights Reserved.)