Census says it is e-ready

Mitre's independent evaluation warns that numerators may need paper

Mitre: 2010 could be paper Census

In independent evaluations of the Census Bureau’s Field Data Collection Automation program, Mitre identified four management weaknesses that could force the agency to abandon its computerized field data collection plans and revert to traditional paper-based collection methods.

  • The bureau and lead contractor Harris do not have a common baseline schedule, which has led to confusion about when the agency needs deliverables and when Harris will deliver them.

  • Program requirements are incomplete.

  • End-to-end testing plans are uncertain, which Mitre blames on the federal government’s use of continuing resolutions to fund programs.

  • Costs are difficult to estimate, especially for handheld computers with prices that could increase.

  • — Wade-Hahn Chan

    The Census Bureau is running out of time to plan for a paper-based alternative to its automated field census in 2010. In a critical assessment of the census project, Mitre recommended that the agency develop contingency plans for a paper-based census.

    With a final evaluation of its new headcounting system scheduled in less than six months, the bureau has not nailed down its requirements for the automated census, according to an assessment performed by Mitre and obtained by Federal Computer Week. Mitre also found that the agency’s requirements for Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) have nearly doubled since the program began in 2006.

    Mitre, a nonprofit research organization, criticized the agency and its contractor, Harris, for failing to have a schedule for delivering and testing handheld computers and databases that Census expects to use for the 2010 census.

    Former Commerce Department officials and Harris dismissed the criticisms. Roger Baker, a former Commerce chief information officer, called Mitre’s evaluations an ambush, given that 2010 is not far away.

    A bureau spokeswoman said there were no plans to revert to paper.

    “At this stage of the decade, such a major change in plans for key operations would pose its own set of significant challenges and risks.”

    Mitre’s call for a backup paper plan is not new. The Government Accountability Office suggested it two years ago in several reports and congressional testimony. The renewed concerns stem from a leaked memo containing Mitre talking points for a Nov. 29 meeting with Jay Waite, deputy census director. The memo was first published in January on the GovExec.com Web site.

    Mitre did not respond to repeated requests for comments on the automated data collection project.

    Members of Congress have called for additional hearings to learn about the data collection program. A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security Subcommittee, said lawmakers were concerned about the talking points.

    “We were extremely alarmed at the talking-points memo because of its blunt assessment of how poorly the FDCA contract is being administered,” Coburn’s spokeswoman said.

    Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) raised questions about Waite’s honesty and knowledge of the FDCA program after Waite didn’t mention problems when he testified in December before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Information Policy, the Census and National Archives Subcommittee.

    Davis and Turner wrote to committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and subcommittee Chairman William Clay (D-Mo.) Jan. 7 to request a new hearing on the 2010 census.

    Baker, now chief executive officer at Dataline, and Michael Murray, Harris’ vice president of census programs, said Mitre’s complaint that requirements are incomplete made little sense for a project such as FDCA.

    “FDCA is a large IT and systems integration program,” he said. “It is not unusual for programs of this magnitude and length to encounter some issues, as well as customer requests for additional requirements.”

    Baker said the issues that Mitre raised about FDCA have more to do with how transaction-based e-commerce projects are managed and funded in the government.

    “In the e-commerce world, all requirements are never developed,” he said. “They evolve.”

    Census is proceeding now as it did when it had to manage desktop software used in the 2000 census, Baker said. Then, the agency paid for a beta test site to continuously identify bugs before field workers took the software into the field.

    Ideally, Census should be conducting release testing of the 2010 handheld computers and back-end da abases every three to four months, Baker said.


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