GAO reports Census IT needs more testing

Time is running out for Census Bureau to complete testing and correct problems in IT systems, GAO says

A month before address canvassing is scheduled to begin for the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau has not completed testing for key information technology support systems, and the upcoming population count remains a high-risk program, the Government Accountability Office told Congress.

“Although the bureau has made progress in testing key decennial systems, critical testing activities remain to be performed before systems will be ready to support the 2010 census,” GAO states in its report, titled “Census Bureau Testing of 2010 Decennial Systems Can Be Strengthened.”

“In its testing of system integration, the bureau has not completed critical activities; it also lacks a master list of interfaces between systems; has not set priorities for the testing of interfaces based on criticality; and has not developed testing plans and schedules,” the report states.

Although the census is supposed to produce a snapshot of the nation’s population on one day — April 1, 2010 — testing of systems began three years ago and operational activities began more than a year ago with the opening of 12 regional centers. Tabulation of the data will continue long after that count is completed. Data must be reported to the president by Dec. 31, 2010, and to state legislatures by March 31, 2011. Data is used to reapportion and redistrict House seats, redraw legislative districts and to allocate billions of dollars in federal assistance.

The bureau has estimated that the upcoming census will cost more than $14 billion, the most expensive ever, and will depend heavily on new technology. Problems in IT systems identified as long as three years ago have delayed testing programs and forced changes in plans for using handheld computers for collecting some information in the field.

Although these delays are not a guarantee that the systems will not work, GAO said that plans for key system testing are needed, including integration testing, and that the bureau needs to improve oversight for the process.

“Without adequate oversight and more comprehensive guidance, the bureau cannot ensure that it is thoroughly testing its systems and properly prioritizing testing activities before the 2010 Decennial Census, posing the risk that these systems may not perform as planned.”

The bureau did not disagree, but said that it was focusing its attention on new elements of its systems rather than end-to-end testing recommended by GAO.

“Our testing strategy is ... to focus on those things we have not done before, and to demonstrate to our own satisfaction that the new software and systems will work in production,” the bureau said. “We will have only one opportunity to use these new things, and they must work the first and only time they will be deployed.”

An extended dress rehearsal for the 2010 Census has been scheduled for February of 2006 through June of this year, although bureau began opening 151 census offices last month and addressing canvassing starts next month. Tests in 2007 found problems with handheld computers to be used in that canvas, developed by Harris Corp. for the Field Data Collection Automation Program. Users in the field reported slow and inconsistent data transmission, difficulty in accessing mapping coordinates, and that the devices would freeze up.

Because of the problems, the handhelds were not included in the dress-rehearsal testing, but given the tight time frame for beginning field work the bureau decided to go ahead with plans to use the devices in address canvassing, which will produce the address list used to perform the census next year.

FDCA is one of half-a-dozen systems that have not yet completed testing. Headquarters processing, master address and geographic information, decennial response integration, paper-based operations, and data access and dissemination all are in the process of being tested. For none of the systems has a complete testing plan or schedule been completed.

Time is running out for this work, GAO warned.

“In addition to ongoing dress rehearsal system testing, the program office intends to perform system testing for 2010 census operations, but plans for this testing have not yet been developed,” the report states. “According to program officials, they have not developed testing plans and schedules for additional testing for the 2010 census because bureau management has not yet finalized the requirements for 2010 operations.”

GAO put the blame for the shortcomings with the top levels of management at the Census Bureau.

“Weaknesses in the bureau’s testing progress and plans can be attributed, in part, to a lack of sufficient executive-level oversight and guidance,” GAO states. “Bureau management does provide oversight of system-testing activities, but the oversight activities are not sufficient.”

The Census Bureau is within the Department of Commerce, and President Barack Obama has addressed the oversight issue with plans to have the head of the bureau report directly to the White House rather than to the secretary of Commerce. This issue was one of the reasons Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) withdrew himself from consideration for Commerce secretary.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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