WASHINGTON — The 2010 census is already in trouble.
The hand-held mobile computers that are supposed to replace the pens and paper long used by census takers aren't working properly, and delays could send the cost from $600 million to as much as $2 billion.
The Census Bureau has done little, if any, planning for what to do if the handheld mobile computers can't be made to work. As a result, an important census dress rehearsal this spring has been delayed by a month as the agency looks for backup plans.
"I cannot over-emphasize the seriousness of this problem," Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock told a Senate hearing this week.
That same day, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, designated the 2010 census a "high-risk area."
The GAO's designation, which provides guidance for Congress about where the next bureaucratic crisis might lie, was the equivalent of a "Beware of Landslides" sign at the entrance to a treacherous mountain road.
The new handheld devices would collect and manage data more efficiently and economically than legions of census-takers armed with pens and pads.
They were supposed to signal the Census Bureau's arrival into the digital age after more than two centuries of collecting data the old-fashioned way.
They would be used to verify addresses through global positioning software, collect data from households that did not mail back the census questionnaires, and manage a variety of information and tasks.
The government awarded a $600 million contract for the new system to the Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., in 2006. But the Census Bureau continued to tinker with the specifications, which the GAO said led to delays and cost overruns. The agency didn't finalize the specifications until January.
Now the "rough estimate" for the revised contract could be as high as $2 billion, according to what Census officials have told Congress, the GAO said.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this week that the program has "serious problems." Both the Census Bureau and Harris "could have done things differently and better over the past couple of years," he said.
Harris spokesman Marc Raimondi would not comment on who was to blame. But he said it was "not unusual for programs of this size and length to encounter some customer requests for additional requirements that they feel best enables them to accomplish their mission."
"Managing those changes is challenging," Raimondi said. "However, we remain totally committed to supporting the Census Bureau's efforts."
But with time running short, Census officials are now scrambling for a back-to-the-future solution.
Pen and paper have been the tools of the census-taker ever since federal marshals first canvassed the nation on horseback in 1790. Rest assured that horses won't be necessary for the 2010 census. But Gutierrez indicated that they haven't written off pen and paper yet.
He told the hearing that the agency would "evaluate the feasibility of a paper-based backup plan."
Census officials have known about potential pitfalls in their new computerized data collection system since 2006, when the GAO first began flashing caution lights. But they failed to heed warnings, either from the GAO or another independent evaluation.
Nor did the agency develop backup plans in case trouble did arise. Officials didn't think alternatives to the handheld computers would be needed.
That was evident in this exchange at a Senate hearing two years ago about planning for the 2010 census.
"What happens if (the handhelds) do not work?" asked Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. "What is your plan B?"
"They will work," said then-Census Director Charles Louis Kincannon. "They have worked. You might as well ask me what happens if the Postal Service refuses to deliver the census forms."
A few questions later, Coburn asked, "So your testimony to me is that there is no alternative plan if that does not work?"
"We have no reason to believe there is any systematic risk in all the handhelds," Kincannon replied. "That system will work."
Technical problems developed during a field test last spring. The GAO said data transmission was "slow and inconsistent."
The worry is that the problems in the planning for the census could taint the results. That could ripple across the federal government in myriad ways.
Census data is used to apportion congressional seats, as well as to calculate how much money states receive for subsidized school lunches, highway aid and a host of other federal programs dependent on income and other demographic data.
Based on the census, state and local governments across the country received about $300 billion last year.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Governmental Affairs Committee, said at the hearing that "wishful thinking, lax management and tunnel vision" were to blame for the problems.
As a result, she said, "we face a large and alarming uncertainty about whether our nation will be able to rely on the results of the of the 2010 census."