The U.S. Census Bureau Field Data Collection Project: Don’t Count on It

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The U.S. Census Bureau Field Data Collection Project: Don’t Count On It

The U.S. Census is an enumeration of the American population performed once every 10 years, also called a decennial census. It is the responsibility of the United States Census Bureau and is used to determine allocation of congressional seats, allocation of federal assistance, and realignment of the boundaries of legislative districts within states. Correctly managing the census leads to billions of dollars in savings, improved service to the public, and strengthened confidence and trust in government. Reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other sources suggest that the 2010 census represents a high-risk area that has been mismanaged for years. The bureau botched implementation of the Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) program, an effort to integrate handheld electronic devices into the census data collection process. The handhelds were intended to replace the millions of paper forms and maps that census workers carried when going door to door to collect household data. Paper-based methods for collecting and recording data made gathering census information time-consuming and difficult to organize. The FDCA program is intended to assist with the initial step of the process: the collection of respondent information. The goal of the program is to implement handheld devices that make census participation as simple as signing for a package. The result would be reduced costs, improved data quality, and better collection efficiency. In 2006, the bureau contracted with Harris Corporation for $595.7 million to oversee the implementation of these mobile computing devices. Harris develops communications products for government and commercial customers worldwide, including wireless transmission equipment. As of this writing, the handhelds have been far too slow and report data too inconsistently to be used reliably for the 2010 census. Lack of executive oversight is more common in the federal sector as opposed to the private sector, because there are more incentives in the private sector for executives to perform. Federal projects such as the FDCA project can suffer from lack of accountability for the same reason. The federal government doesn’t use certified program managers and highly qualified executives for these kinds of projects, and they didn’t for the FDCA program. The FDCA suffered from poor communication and appropriate testing procedures. For example, the project team did not specify the testing process to measure performance of handheld devices. It also did not accurately describe the technical requirements of the census to Harris Corp. Due to the immaturity of the mobile technology selected and the inexperience of Harris regarding projects of this size and scale, it was important that the bureau give accurate system requirements and scheduling information, which it failed to do. Implementations of mobile technology tend to be very complicated, requiring sound management and careful planning. The systems have a variety of components, carriers, devices, and applications to organize and coordinate. Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock testified before Congress in April 2008 that the Census Bureau had failed to effectively convey the complexity of census operations or the project’s IT requirements to Harris. The initial contract contained 600 requirements for the mobile handheld systems, but the Census Bureau later added 418 more. The constant addition of more require- ments made designing the product unnecessarily difficult. The bureau did not press Harris hard enough to provide continued updates on project progress. Yet Harris also did not present the bureau with an accurate initial estimate to begin with. The struggles of the FCDA don’t threaten the completion of the 2010 census. It will occur as scheduled, but will be far less efficient and cost a great deal more, approximately $3...
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