Computer glitches are driving up count costs

By Hope Yen
Associated Press / May 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Frequent outages in a Census Bureau computer system used to manage the 2010 count are driving up costs and put the accuracy at risk because of the substantial overtime required to deal with the problem, a new audit says.

The report from the Commerce Department inspector general’s office, obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, offers new details on the scope of problems as more than 600,000 census workers begin fanning out in neighborhoods this month to conduct interviews at 48 million homes.

The audit said major outages had caused a 40-hour backlog of work over two weeks in April, causing substantial amounts of overtime and other workarounds.

Overtime costs have already reached more than $1.6 million, with costs expected to balloon higher — potentially beyond the Census Bureau’s $15 billion budget — due to the heavy workload now required in its door-to-door canvassing.

Investigators said the demands in dealing with the computer problems were threatening to “diminish staff retention,’’ would add to costs if the system is unable to process census forms that were mailed in late, and would cause inaccuracies if census data can’t be put in the system immediately.

“If performance problems persist, they will put the successful completion [of the census] at risk,’’ the report states, urging the Census Bureau to add staff and implement more manual and automated checks to make certain questionnaires are not lost.

In a news briefing this week, Robert Groves, Census Bureau director, acknowledged the problems but said officials had gotten over a “big hump’’ in the workload in the past week when they were able to print assignments for more than 600,000 enumerators.

Groves has predicted that the additional costs for staffing will not cause the bureau to exceed its budget for the 2010 count, even while acknowledging that ultimately it will depend on how well the door-to-door work is conducted through mid-July.