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12/21/2010
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Census Hampered By IT Problems

Significant technology issues led to a peak backlog of 12 million forms that were delayed in processing, found the Government Accountability Office.

The bureau came up with workarounds to address the issues -- such as limiting the system's availability time to perform maintenance and upgrades and restricting its number of users at a given time. But they weren't enough to repair the problems and, in the case of the latter, workers said the workaround "adversely affected their ability to keep up with the workload," according to the report.

Former Census Bureau employee Mike Firth had first-hand experience with these issues. Firth worked on the NRFU team for his local Census Bureau in Mesquite, Texas, from March 31 to Aug. 7.

In an e-mail to InformationWeek, Firth recounted critical times when PBOCS access was not only limited but the system failed to work properly.

"At the most intense point when 1,5000 [forms] were to be processed in three to four days while 2,800 assignment areas were to be set up with non-return listings, three people per center were allowed to use the system," he told InformationWeek via e-mail. "Then it regularly crashed or produced minutes of delay per entry."

Firth also suggested that the problems with the IT system could even have resulted in an error in the results of the census, if forms were not double-checked by employees.

"If I had my usual faith in systems correcting themselves, I would hope that the hundreds of millions of forms that were sent in, including all those with penciled scribbles outside the boxes, were cross-checked to improve accuracy," he said.

Firth's experience seems to support a GAO finding that the combination of user restrictions, system outages, and performance slowdowns resulted in a peak backlog of nearly 12 million questionnaires because they couldn't be shipped to data-capture centers in time.

The GAO is recommending that the Census Bureau incorporate best practices in its IT management policy to avoid making similar mistakes during the next census, according to the report. It also should develop an operational plan encompassing performance, budget, and other information to create a more streamlined process next time, it said.

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