2010 Census Still Imperiled by Technical, Other Troubles, GAO Says

By Steve Vogel and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 6, 2009

The accuracy of the 2010 Census remains threatened by computer problems and untested methods the Census Bureau plans to use for conducting the count, according to testimony yesterday from the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO assessment, presented at House and Senate hearings on the progress of census preparations, warns that with census day set for April 1, 2010, the bureau is behind schedule. "With little time remaining, uncertainties surround the bureau's readiness for 2010," according to Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues for the GAO.

The census, mandated by the Constitution to be conducted every 10 years, is used to apportion seats in Congress, redraw congressional districts and allocate billions of dollars in federal assistance to state and local governments, making its accuracy critical.

The cost of the 2010 Census could reach $15 billion by the time of its completion in 2012, according to testimony yesterday. That would make it the most expensive head count in American history, even adjusted for inflation.

Despite the concerns about what remains to be done, Goldenkoff said, the Census Bureau has made "commendable progress" since a GAO report one year ago designated the 2010 Census as being at "high risk" because of weaknesses in its information technology management and problems with the performance of hand-held computers.

Thomas Mesenbourg, acting director of the Census Bureau, told members of the House subcommittee overseeing the census that the bureau has "significantly reduced the risk to the 2010 Census."

"We are well on our way towards a successful enumeration," Mesenbourg added.

Some members of the congressional panels expressed relief at the progress. "It sounds like the bureau has come a long way," said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), chairman of the House panel.

But Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the census, warned that "the 2010 Census is approaching a state of emergency."

"We are very cognizant that time is of the essence," Mesenbourg said.

Problems with the specially designed hand-held computers curtailed dress rehearsals for census operations, meaning the bureau "missed its only opportunity to demonstrate that the full complement of census-taking activities will work in concert with one another under near-census-like conditions," the GAO noted.

Census workers will use the computers starting next month as the bureau undertakes "address canvassing," or its accounting of every place of residence. But officials concluded that the machines are not reliable enough to use for in-person follow-up interviews.

Mesenbourg said 140,000 temporary census workers will "walk almost every street in America" to check about 145 million addresses. Recent feedback from more than 8,100 local governments added about 8 million addresses to the list, he said.

The 2010 Census has already been the cause of political infighting. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) withdrew as the Obama administration's nominee for secretary of commerce in part because of Republican concerns that the census director would report directly to the White House.

After the nomination of former Washington governor Gary Locke, a Democrat, to head Commerce, the White House said the commerce secretary would continue to oversee the census director.

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