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Census Bureau abandons high-tech plans for 2010

WASHINGTON – Stumbling over its multibillion-dollar plans for a high-tech census, the government says it will go back to counting the nation’s 300 million people the old-fashioned way – with paper and pencil.

Help wanted: 600,000 temporary workers to do the job.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress Thursday his department will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don’t return the census forms that come in the mail.

That’s one of a number of changes that will add as much as $3 billion to the constitutionally mandated 2010 count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion.

This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation’s history. The Census Bureau had awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, plus the computer operating system, at a cost of more than $600 million. The contract is now projected to balloon to $1.3 billion, even though the bureau will scale back its purchase to only 151,000 computers. The higher expenditure is because of cost overruns and new features ordered by the Census Bureau on the computers and the operating system.

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 the 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.

Gutierrez blamed many of the problems on “a lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors.”

“As I have said before, the situation today is unacceptable, and we have been taking steps to address the issues,” Gutierrez, who oversees the Census Bureau, told a House appropriations subcommittee.

In fact, interviews, congressional testimony and government reports describe an agency that was unprepared to manage the contract for the handheld computers. Census officials are being blamed for doing a poor job of spelling out technical requirements to the contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp.

At one point, the Census Bureau identified more than 400 new or clarified technical requirements for the computer system, Gutierrez said.

“This is a grossly mismanaged constitutionally mandated program,” said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, D-W.Va., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee.

The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.

Gutierrez said the Census Bureau was unaccustomed to working with an outside vendor on such a large contract. For example, he said, the original contract called for paying Harris $36 million to include in the computer operating system a help desk to assist census-takers who have computer problems. That figure has since jumped to $217 million.


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