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Senate Census panel asks tough questions about 2010 count
Thursday - 10/8/2009, 6:27am EDT
By Max Cacas
With less than 6 months to go before the start of the 2010 decennial census, officials are still coping with uncertainty surrounding the next constitutionally-mandated count of the nation's population.
On Wednesday, the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, which has oversight over the U.S. Census Bureau, conducted its latest hearing on what will likely be one of the most costly censuses in history.
One of the areas of concern says Robert Goldenkopf, director of Strategic Issues with the Government Accountability Office, is all the uncertainty that underlies the on-again, off again planning for the 2010 census. GAO named the census to its "high risk list" last year because of:
Weakness in its IT management, problems with handheld computers used to collect data, and uncertainty over the final cost of the census.
Doctor Robert Groves, the new census director, says the bureau is generally making good progress toward resolving a long list of problems related to the 2010 census, but says one thing keeping him up late at night is concern about just how many Americans will fill out their forms, and get them back in the mail as soon as possible.
The behavior of the American public in March and April of next year is a big uncertainty in regards to that. Scores of millions of dollars will be spent following up with houses that don't return the mail questionnaire. Its important to hit that target, that estimate well.
Groves told the panel that the vacancy rate of homes due to the recession, and related home foreclosures, could complicate the effort to have as many people as possible return their census forms in the first round of the count between the first week of April and mid-May.
Director Groves also told the panel that even at this late date, the Census Bureau continues to develop software to handle the paper-based "Non-Response Followup" stage of the census. This was a part of the census that had been slated to be performed using a highly automated system in conjunction with the controversial hand-held computers. Last year, census officials decided not to use the handhelds for this portion of the census count because development of the automation system was lagging far behind other portions of the census.
Lawmakers continued to press for the use of the Internet and web-based tools to speed the count and reduce costs. But Groves told Senator John McCain (R.-Az.) that it is too late in preparations for the count to integrate web-based data gathering in the 2010 census. Groves did say that in August of next year, as the formal census count is being concluded, there is a small-scale test planned to gauge the possibility of one day using the web for the 2020 census.
Under questioning, Groves also revealed that as recently as 5 years ago, there was a proposal that a web-based census follow-up pilot program be conducted in college campus dormitories during the 2010 count to test the viability of using new technologies to improve the count, but said the idea was never formally made a part of next year's population tally. On Wednesday, several lawmakers, including McCain, expressed support for the possibility of short-term legislation that would provide funding and support for a dorm-based pilot program for the census.
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