Census struggles to solve IT problems in time for 2010 count

With official count set for April 1, GAO cites performance problems

The decennial headcount already has begun in some places and with the official Census Day -- April 1 -- little more than a month away, problems with key information technology systems continue to plague the Census Bureau, the Government Accountability Office told a Congressional panel.

“Although the bureau has made progress in testing and deploying IT systems for the 2010 Census, significant performance issues have been identified with both the workflow management system as well as with the Decennial Applicant Personnel and Payroll System,” Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s director of strategic issues, said in testimony.

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Not all IT systems will be needed right away, he said. Some will be used in processing data over the next year, rather than in the immediate counting. But time for deploying and testing the systems is running out.

“With key deadlines looming, it will be important for the bureau to identify the defects affecting the IT systems, test solutions, and quickly implement changes,” Goldenkoff said.

Goldenkoff made his statements Feb. 23 in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security.

The Census is constitutionally required every 10 years, and the results are used to apportion congressional representatives and for distribution of federal funds. The count actually began Jan. 25 in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. Although the bureau is supposed to conduct a one-day census on April 1, the count actually will be spread over several weeks, as forms are mailed and returned, and in-person visits are made. State populations for congressional apportionment are due by Dec. 31, and breakdowns of local populations for congressional redistricting are due by April 1, 2011.

Goldenkoff called the 2010 Census “unprecedented in its scope and complexity” and identified several problem areas, including inadequate cost estimates, in addition to IT systems. Overall, the bureau has made progress in many areas in an effort to ensure a smooth and accurate count, he said, but he predicted that the process would not be easy.

“The performance of the IT systems notwithstanding, a successful outcome is far from guaranteed,” he said. “Experience from past enumerations suggests that various glitches are all but inevitable once the head count is fully underway.”

Given this forecast, it is important for the bureau to identify and fix problems as quickly as possible and to keep operations on schedule, he said.

GAO identified the 2010 Census as a high-risk program in 2008, and in March 2009 identified problems with testing IT systems. Since then, improvements have been made, including the naming of a testing officer to monitor testing activities. The bureau also completed limited end-to-end testing of the Paper-Based Operations Control System, an in-house workflow management system developed when the bureau was forced to give up its plan to have field workers use hand-held computers in gathering information. It also performed tests on the Decennial Applicant Personnel and Payroll System, which will be used to pay more than 1 million temporary employees.

During tests in December, the DAPPS failed and other key systems, including PBOCS, performed slowly. System communication errors were also found. Bureau officials said many of the problems have been solved, but others remain and new issues have been found that will have to be resolved and retested.

In addition to DAPPS and PBOCS, the bureau will rely on six other key IT systems and much testing on them remains to be done:

  • Headquarters processing — Universe Control and Management, which organizes files into enumeration “universes.” Deployment of remaining functionality is planned for September.
  • Headquarters processing — Response Processing System, used to help eliminate overcounts. The system will be needed in February 2011 but final testing will not be completed until December.
  • Master Address File/topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing System. Geographic information will beneeded in April and testing still is under way.
  • Field Data Collection Automation. Development and testing has been completed.
  • Decennial Response Integration System. Needed in February; testing still under way.
  • Data Access and Dissemination System II, to replace the legacy system for publishing data. Will be needed beginning in December and testing still is ongoing.

“In summary, key IT functions — namely the bureau’s personnel and payroll system and the PBOCS — continue to face performance problems and have not yet demonstrated the ability to function reliably under full operational loads,” Goldenkoff said. “With key deadlines looming, it will be important for the bureau to identify the defects affecting the IT systems, test solutions, and quickly implement changes.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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