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Census Bureau to scrap high-tech plan in 2010

Technology problems forces the government to count all of the nation's 300 million residents in the 2010 census the old-fashioned way — with paper and pencil.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stumbling over its multibillion-dollar plans for a high-tech census, the government says it will go back to counting the nation's 300 million people the old-fashioned way — with paper and pencil.

Help wanted: 600,000 temporary workers to do the job.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress Thursday his department will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don't return the census forms that come in the mail.

That's one of a number of changes that will add as much as $3 billion to the constitutionally mandated 2010 count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion.

This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation's history. The Census Bureau had awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The contract is now projected to balloon to $1.3 billion, even though bureau will scale back its purchase to only 151,000 computers.

The devices, which look like fancy cell phones, will still be used to verify every residential street address in the country, using global positioning system software.

But workers going door-to-door will not be able to use them to collect information from the residents who didn't return their census forms. About a third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms. The Census Bureau plans to hire and train nearly 600,000 temporary workers to do the canvassing.

Gutierrez blamed many of the problems on "a lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors."

"As I have said before, the situation today is unacceptable, and we have been taking steps to address the issues," said Gutierrez, who oversees the Census Bureau.

Agency wasn't ready
In fact, interviews, congressional testimony and government reports describe an agency that was unprepared to manage the contract for the handheld computers. Census officials are being blamed for doing a poor job of spelling out technical requirements to the contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp.

The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.

At one point, the Census Bureau identified more than 400 new or clarified technical requirements for the computer system, Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said the Census Bureau was unaccustomed to working with an outside vendor on such a large contract. For example, he said, the original contract called for paying Harris $36 million to operate a help desk to assist census-takers who have computer problems. That figure has since jumped to $217 million.

"It was a bad estimate. I can't think of a better way to say it," Gutierrez said. "Harris gave us the number. We accepted it. It was totally underestimated."

The Harris Corp. issued a statement saying it still looks forward to playing a large role in the 2010 count.

"The wireless handheld devices are part of a larger, multifaceted process to move from a 'paper culture' to a more 'automated' culture appropriate for the 21st century," the company said. Despite the problems, company officials said they were "encouraged that automation and the adoption of new technology is moving forward, even if in a more narrowly focused fashion."

Harris spokesman Marc Raimondi said the cost of the contract increased as the requirements increased.

"The increased funding is required to cover additional sites, equipment, software and functions added by the bureau to the program in January of this year," Raimondi said in an e-mail. "The handheld devices make up only a portion of the overall automation program."

Mollohan said both the Census Bureau and Harris Corp. "contributed to today's crisis." However, the Census Bureau's failure to address problems with the computers early on has "turned the crisis into the emergency that we now face."

'One hell of a mess'
Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, noted that Census Director Steven Murdock was just confirmed by the Senate in December.

"You've inherited one hell of a mess," Frelinghuysen said to Murdock as Thursday's hearing began. "Good luck to you."

The 2010 census was already on pace to be the most expensive ever. Officials now are scrambling add money while trying to ensure the count produces reliable population numbers — figures that will be used to apportion seats in Congress and divvy up more than $300 billion a year in federal and state funding.

The success or failure of the census could have widespread repercussions. The Constitution has required a census every 10 years since the first one in 1790. It is used to apportion the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states. And states and many cities use census data to draw legislative districts.

Population numbers are used to calculate billions in state and federal grants for transportation, education and other programs. Private businesses use census data to identify labor and consumer markets.