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Company: Tech debacle is Census Bureau fault

The company hired to help modernize the 2010 census blamed government officials Wednesday for technology problems.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The company hired to help modernize the 2010 census blamed government officials Wednesday for technology problems that will force census-takers to continue using paper and pencil.

The Census Bureau announced last week that it will abandon plans to use handheld computers to count the millions of residents who do not return census forms mailed out by the government.

Cheryl L. Janey of Florida-based Harris Corp., the company supplying the computers, told a House committee that census officials failed to adequately spell out the specifications for the computers.

"It was just this past January, two years after the contract was first issued, that we received more than 400 new and altered contract modifications," Janey said in prepared testimony before the House Oversight Committee.

Janey said the computers will work "in conformity with Census Bureau specifications," but the specifications were inadequate.

Census Director Steven Murdock, who took over just four months ago, said the bureau "did not effectively convey to the contractor the complexity of census operations."

This was to be the nation's first truly high-tech census. The bureau had awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, plus the computer operating system, for more than $600 million. The contract is now projected to balloon to $1.3 billion, even though the bureau will buy only 151,000 computers, because of cost overruns and new features ordered by the bureau.

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 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.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said census officials had been warned of potential technology problems as early as 2005.

'Warning signs were clear'
"The warning signs were clear, yet the bureau and the (Commerce) Department apparently did not begin a serious review of the program requirements until late 2007 to early 2008," he said.

Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, the panel's top Republican, marveled at the Census Bureau's inability to use technology that has become commonplace in the private sector.

"Americans interact with handheld devices everyday," said Davis. "Major international corporations use portable electronic devices all the time to track inventory and information on a global basis, across cultural boundaries and logistical barriers."

The success or failure of the census could have widespread repercussions. The Constitution requires a census every 10 years. 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 also are used to calculate more than $300 billion a year in state and federal grants for transportation, education and other programs. Private businesses use census data to identify labor and consumer markets.