The Census: Constitutional but Very Costly

Most activities undertaken by the federal government have no constitutional basis. One exception is the Census carried out every 10 years to determine the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives. Alas, it appears that even this core federal function is subject to cost overruns and waste, as a new report from the Department of Commerce’s inspector general illustrates.

Quarterly updates of progress on the census by the inspector general were required by legislation in 2008, which gave the Census Bureau an additional $210 million “to help cover spiraling 2010 decennial costs stemming from the bureau’s problematic efforts to automate major field operations, major flaws in its cost-estimating methods, and other issues.”

So how are things going?

The Census has been forced to rush the creation of a paper-based processing system for its field staff because its original plan to equip workers with hand-held computers was a boondoggle. In the world of government, “rush” means that Census told Congress in April 2008 that it was scrapping the computers.

From a NextGov.com article at the time:

In 2006, the Census Bureau awarded a $595 million contract to Harris Corp. to develop more than 525,000 handheld computers that enumerators would use to collect data from Americans who did not send in their census forms… Since awarding the contract, the project has experienced constant setbacks, including changing system requirements that led to increased costs and missed deadlines. Reports by the Government Accountability Office, the department’s inspector general and Mitre Corp. all issued warnings that the handhelds were at risk of not being ready by 2010 and may not work as planned.

According to the inspector general’s report, the paper-based replacement system is also having problems:

  • “We found that system development and testing have fallen substantially behind schedule, resulting in less functionality and an increased likelihood of field staff’s encountering technical problems during operations.”
  • “Although development staff have been deployed as much as possible — working two shifts per day, extended hours, weekends and holidays — the schedule to build new functionality has not appreciably improved, and testing of already developed functionality continues to fall farther behind.”
  • Defects in the software have gone from 26 to 80 in the past year. As a result of the software delays and defects, the development of the training materials is 31 days behind schedule.
  • As for actual system performance, “Two load tests were conducted in December 2009 to determine the network and computing capacity needed during peak operations. The first test revealed numerous performance and functional problems. Although many of these problems were alleviated for the second test, performance issues persist.” Deployment is less than five weeks away.

The estimated cost of the census has increased by $3.2 billion in the last two years and is now expected to cost $14.7 billion. The inspector general’s take on cost overruns at early local census offices (ELCOs) speaks for itself:

These wide variances between budgeted and actual costs do not generate confidence in the Census Bureau’s budgeting and cost containment processes for large-scale field operations.

Among the findings:

  • “For production, 49 of 151 ELCOs (32 percent) exceeded their wage budgets and 75 (50 percent) exceeded their mileage budgets.”
  • “The ELCOs’ production wage costs were 45–186 percent of their budgets and for production mileage they were less than one percent to 250 percent of their budgets.”
  • “For quality control, 124 of 151 ELCOs (82 percent) exceeded both their wage and mileage budgets.”
  • “For the quality control phase of the operation, ELCOs’ wage costs were 68–439 percent of their budgets and for mileage were less than one percent to 878 percent of their budgets.”

That’s some quality control.

As for government efficiency:

During Address Canvassing, 15,263 employees received training but worked for less than a single day or did not work at all. Of these employees, 10,235 did not work at all but earned approximately $3.4 million for attending training. An additional 5,028 employees completed training, at a cost of $2.2 million in wages, but worked for less than a single day.

Looking at how the federal government is bungling a core constitutional function, it’s amazing that we let it meddle in housing, energy, health care, and thousands of other activities the Founders didn’t envision it doing.

See this essay for more on cost overruns in government programs.