GAO questions success of Census test

Before undertaking the next national head count in 2000, the Census Bureau must fix software bugs in the imaging system designed to process the billion pages of census forms it will receive, according to General Accounting Office officials testifying before a Senate committee last month.

Speaking to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, GAO charged that during the census dress rehearsal, which is currently under way at three locations nationwide, parts of Census' imaging system have crashed, bringing down scanners that will convert handwritten census responses into computer-readable forms. The dress rehearsal provides the bureau with an opportunity to test, in a real-life situation, new technology it plans to use for the 2000 census.

Census officials said some glitches were expected, and they maintained that the purpose of the dress rehearsal was to find and fix problems before the 2000 census.

"We expected [problems]. If everything came out 100 percent perfect, I would question it," said Mike Longini, chief of the decennial systems and contracts management office at Census. "The dress rehearsal provided us with information to make the [system] fixes for the 2000 census."

Specifically, GAO singled out scanning equipment used to electronically record census responses. The equipment crashed due to flaws in the system software, which could not handle the workload, said J. Christopher Mihm, associate director for federal management and work-force issues at GAO's General Government Division.

"To deal with this problem, the bureau was forced to cut back the number of scanners in operation at any one time," Mihm told the Senate panel. The bureau said it will test a new version of the software this month. "However, additional load testing is still necessary because the system could not be run during the rehearsal at performance levels that will be needed in 2000," Mihm said.

The imaging system, the Data Capture System 2000, which prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing, is made up of clusters of equipment, including scanners and servers, Longini said.

If one scanner in a cluster crashed, it would not bring down the entire system, just that cluster. As such, Census was able to meet its processing deadlines, he said.

GAO also said Census must grapple with the problem that the scanners' lenses must be cleaned every 15 minutes because of an accumulation of dust. Longini said Lockheed Martin subcontractor Eastman Kodak Co. was able to adjust the scanners so that dust does not fall on the lens.

Although Census was able to successfully staff its dress-rehearsal operations and complete them on schedule, there are still "major obstacles to a cost-effective census," Mihm said. These include building a complete master address list using a new process that was not tested during the dress rehearsal and motivating people to respond to the census questionnaire.

In addition, Census has not determined the quality of the data collected during the dress rehearsal. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said GAO and Census are sending mixed messages on the dress rehearsal.

"To hear the administration tell it, the dress rehearsal has been an unmitigated success," he said. "But I am not sure that is consistent with what GAO has found. I am concerned that the census could buckle under the weight of management and implementation problems that could spell disaster in 2000."

It is essential that the 2000 census accurately count the country's population, Thompson said. "Without accurate data, local school districts won't know where to build new schools, planning agencies won't know where new roads are needed to accommodate population growth, and communities could miss out on millions of dollars in federal aid distributed on the basis of population," he said.

Thompson added that he expects "dramatic and measurable improvements in the Census Bureau's performance to ensure the American people do not spend 4 billion dollars on a census that cannot promise an accurate count."

Meanwhile, the House passed the Commerce, Justice, State appropriations bill that would prevent Census from receiving funds for the 2000 census after March 31, 1999, without approval from the president and Congress. This move would delay purchasing equipment to build the data capture system, according to Commerce Secretary William Daley.

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