In a census operation that has been plagued by problems nationally, the head count in the District is proving to be among the most troublesome.

Figures from the Census Bureau and the congressional subcommittee overseeing the 1990 Census point to numerous problems in the District, ranging from errors by census workers to a low response rate from the public.

Bureau numbers released by the House Subcommittee on Census and Population at a hearing yesterday show that when the bureau recounted households in 24 of its offices across the country, it found the District's northern area office had missed 5,883 people out of 284,746. Only one other office -- Fairfield, N.J. -- had missed more.

"I'm not sure {the District} was unique, but it experienced the full range of troubles," said Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Ohio), who was chairman of the hearing. "We had a set of real problems," nationally, he said. "The District is an extraordinary example."

There have been other problems in the city's census count:

About 55 percent of D.C. households that received questionnaires returned them by mail, compared with a national average of 63 percent. That response rate put the District near the bottom of the nation's largest cities and meant that nearly half of the city's households had to be visited by a census worker.

The door-to-door headcount in the District lagged behind the rest of the nation. When the Census Bureau announced in early July that 99 percent of the nation's households had been counted, the District's southern area office had completed work for only 88 percent of its households, fewer than any region except New York City, according to Sawyer's staff.

Census workers in the District used "last resort" information at extraordinarily high rates, collecting data on a household from neighbors, a postal worker or an apartment building manager when no one in the home could be reached.

Nationally, 3 percent of households were counted using last-resort information, while the figure was 40 percent in the District's northern area office and 23 percent in the southern area office. The northern office covers most of Northeast and Northwest Washington except Georgetown, which is included in the southern area office.

Only a few other offices had such high rates of last-resort information, which is considered more prone to error than other methods of gathering information.

Census Bureau officials say the experience in the District was similar to that in many of the nation's largest cities.

"We certainly faced a variety of challenges" in the District, said Brian Monaghan, assistant regional manager for the bureau's Charlotte, N.C., office, which oversees Washington.

"But . . . it's pretty much what we expected in terms of being a large, central city."

It is too early to know whether the District's final population figure will be affected by the problems.

Through several operations, the bureau has rechecked 20 percent of the nation's households, uncovering and correcting errors in the population counts for the District and elsewhere.

Census officials decided to check the population counts in the 24 districts after media reports that census workers had fabricated information in northern New Jersey and Chicago.

Officials would not comment yesterday on whether they had uncovered falsification by census workers.

Sawyer argued at the hearing that, even with the bureau's follow-up operations, it would still come up at least 2 million short of its national population estimates of 250 million.

Census Bureau Director Barbara Everitt Bryant would not discuss the population totals, saying that the final numbers have not been calculated.