Buzz of the Week

E-census: A cost/benefit analysis

We have to admit that when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) mentioned last week that the Census Bureau does not use the Internet to conduct its decennial count, we were shocked. Other than some parts of the Interior Department that are still stuck in a no-Internet zone, how do people get their jobs done without using the Web in some way?

Bureau officials have some legitimate reasons for choosing not to use the Internet for the latest census. They hired Mitre to assess the issue, and the organization produced a report earlier this year that found substantial costs but little corresponding benefit to using the Internet. It would cost $22 million to have an effective online system, the report states. But perhaps more disconcerting are the potential costs related to security breaches.

“A perceived or real security breach…would almost certainly have a negative impact on the overall response rate, including paper-form response,” the report states. If that happens, the bureau would need additional enumerators to go door-to-door collecting census data. The bureau already recruits, hires and trains more than 500,000 field workers, which means that when it’s conducting a census, it is one of the nation’s largest employers, according to the Government Accountability Office.

That process is costly. The 2010 census is projected to cost $11.5 billion, and it will be the most expensive census ever, even taking inflation into account. If a security risk affected people’s willingness to respond to census questionnaires, those costs could increase.

The bureau is using technology to increase efficiency, as Federal Computer Week’s cover story this week details. But ignoring the potential of the Internet seems so 1990s.

Coburn issued a Census Challenge, saying, “I would like to challenge anyone in industry, academia, government or elsewhere to develop plans for how we can conduct a census for cheaper than $90 a household. The American public is the most creative in the world and can surely develop ideas that will help spur new innovations in the way we conduct the census.”

Game on!


#2: Pay change
A majority of federal human resources officers wouldn’t mind tossing out the current civil-service pay system for one resembling private-sector pay systems, which give managers more say about who gets pay increases and who doesn’t. That survey finding, released last week by the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton, probably won’t have any immediate effect on the stalemate between employees and managers about changing the federal pay system. Many federal employees are convinced that the current pay system of predictable pay increases protects them from poor managers, just as many federal managers think the status quo protects poor employees and gives them undeserved pay raises.

#3: Work, contractor, work
One Democratic lawmaker sounded none too happy after hearing stories last week about poorly performing federal contractors. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said contractors that don’t perform or that cheat the government should not be getting new federal contracts. “When I was in school and you were caught cheating on a test, your score was killed, you flunked,” Towns said. “It seems that seventh-graders are held to higher standards than nuclear security contractors.” Towns and his colleague Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said they believe that a database could help in publicizing contractor misdeeds, so they’ve introduced the Contractors and Federal Spending Accountability Act.

#4: Defining what you do
Comptroller General David Walker decided to get all worked up and philosophical last week about the meaning of “inherently governmental.” That’s the nebulous term that the Office of Management and Budget uses in its Circular A-76 policy for determining which jobs now performed by federal employees can be outsourced to the private sector. Unfortunately, OMB’s definition in the circular is simply a starting point, and Walker offered provocative testimony but no practical end to the definitional debate.

#5: Davis-Bloch round 2
An update of last week’s buzz — Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) is still fuming about Special Counsel Scott Bloch’s use of a personal e-mail account to discuss what Davis terms “official government business.” On July 20, Davis, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to America Online Chairman Randy Falco asking the company to preserve all e-mail records associated with Bloch’s account. Then he sent a letter to Bloch asking him to produce copies of all e-mail messages sent on his AOL account since
Jan. 26.

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