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It’s going to be a low-tech census in 2010

Times Staff Writer

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and Census Bureau Director Steve H. Murdock told a House appropriations subcommittee Thursday that the government would not be able to use specially designed hand-held computers to collect information for the 2010 census from the millions of people who don’t return census forms.

The two officials cited poor communication with Florida-based Harris Corp., the contractor providing more than 500,000 of the devices, as a leading reason for the technical problems that have put the program on hold.

As a result, the 600,000 temporary workers who will go door to door to track down the people who fail to return the forms will gather the data as they have in previous decades -- with pen and paper.

“This is a grossly mismanaged constitutionally mandated program,” said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the subcommittee’s chairman.

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Gutierrez, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, agreed.

The program “has experienced significant schedule, performance and cost issues,” he said. It now has a price tag of about $600 million. “A lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors has significantly contributed to the challenges. As I have said before, the situation today is unacceptable, and we have been taking steps to address the issues.”

The information gathered by the census, which is taken every 10 years, is used to apportion federal and state funding. It is also the basis for determining the boundaries of congressional districts and reallocating the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among states because of gains and losses in population.

In a test last year, workers struggled to understand the complexity of the computers, and the devices could not transmit large amounts of data.

During the hearing, lawmakers accused the Census Bureau of doing a poor job of explaining technical requirements to Harris Corp. Gutierrez agreed, noting that census officials lacked experience working with an outside vendor on a sizable contract.

Of the millions of census forms that are sent out, officials estimate that a third are not returned, requiring in- person interviews.

The devices will be used to verify residential street addresses through global positioning system software. “The wireless hand-held devices are part of a larger, multifaceted process to move from a ‘paper culture’ to a more ‘automated’ culture appropriate for the 21st century,” Harris Corp. said in a statement. “We are encouraged that automation and the adoption of new technology is moving forward, even if in a more narrowly focused fashion.”

Officials said the additional manual labor required because of the technical problems would cost up to $3 billion, boosting the overall 2010 census cost to as high as $14 billion. That would be the most expensive count in U.S. history.

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“You’ve inherited one hell of a mess here,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) told Murdock, who was confirmed to the Census Bureau post in December. “Good luck to you.”

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ben.dubose@latimes.com


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