updated 5/5/2010 6:29:38 PM ET 2010-05-05T22:29:38

Frequent outages in a Census Bureau computer system used to manage the 2010 count are driving up costs and put the accuracy at risk because of substantial overtime required to deal with the problem, a new audit says.

The report from the Commerce Department inspector general's office, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, offers new details on the scope of problems as more than 600,000 census workers begin fanning neighborhoods this month to conduct interviews at 48 million homes.

It said major outages had caused a 40-hour backlog of work over two weeks in April, causing substantial amounts of overtime and other workarounds. Overtime costs have already reached more than $1.6 million, with costs expected to balloon higher — potentially beyond the Census Bureau's $15 billion budget — due to the heavy workload now required in its door-to-door canvassing.

Investigators said the demands in dealing with the computer problems were threatening to "diminish staff retention," add to costs if the system was unable to process census forms that were mailed in late as planned, and cause inaccuracies if census data can't be put in the system immediately.

"If performance problems persist, they will put the successful completion (of the census) at risk," the report states, in urging the Census Bureau to add staff and implement more manual and automated checks to make certain census questionnaires are not lost.

In a news briefing this week, Census Bureau director Robert Groves acknowledged the problems but said that officials had gotten over a "big hump" in the workload in the past week when they were able to print assignments for more than 600,000 enumerators.

Groves has predicted that the additional costs for staffing will not cause the bureau to exceed its budget for the 2010 count, even while acknowledging that ultimately it will depend on how well the door-to-door count is conducted through mid-July.

"The system is still shaky. We have a lot of workarounds around it," Groves said. "It's fulfilled the needs of the other operations we're doing, and we got over this big hump. But it isn't perfect. I don't want to portray it as an optimally performing system, it is not that."

The computer problems are a result of hasty design to the bureau's Paper Based Operations Control System that began in early 2008, after the Census Bureau scrapped plans to use a handheld-computer method that ended up costing more than $700 million but did not operate adequately.

Returning to the paper-based method boosted the cost of the census by about $3 billion to a total or nearly $15 billion. But in the report on Wednesday, the IG report questioned whether the bureau could stay within budget because of ongoing outages in the system.

Other findings in the IG report:

  • The Census Bureau's monthly spending reports are somewhat unreliable, with actual costs exceeding the operating budget by as much as 7 percent. When expenditures fell below costs, in many cases it was because of "salaries that were not incurred, obligations that were delayed and delays in hiring local census office staff" that may show up in later expense reports.
  • Census takers have met difficulties with assignments due to faulty maps, overstaffing and inefficient coordination. Training is ineffective in some areas; there are numerous errors in the manuals and the "one-size-fits-all" approach that does not always address the "challenges unique to a specific geography or location."

The population count, conducted every 10 years, is used to distribute House seats and more than $400 billion in federal aid.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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