April 8, 2008
Written by C.N.
For many sociologists and other scholars like me, the Census data that is compiled every 10 years is flat-out, the most reliable, comprehensive, and best source of data on the American population. We rely on it for us to not just do our research and publish papers, but to help us understand the world around us better in general.
It’s with that in mind that I was rather frustrated to see this article from CNN — an accumulation of mistakes and glitches will apparently cost the Census Bureau several billions of dollars in wasted funds, not to mention the trust of scholars and the American people in general:
[T]he government will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don’t return census forms mailed out by the government. The change will add as much as $3 billion to the cost of the constitutionally mandated count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion. . . .
This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation’s history. The Census Bureau has awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The devices, which look like high-tech cell phones, will still be used to verify every residential street address in the country, using global positioning system software.
But workers going door-to-door will not be able to use them to collect information from the residents who didn’t return their census forms. About a third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms. . . . Interviews, congressional testimony and government reports describe an agency that was unprepared to manage the contract for the handheld computers.
Census officials are being blamed for doing a poor job of spelling out technical requirements to the contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp. The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.
In my previous life, I worked as a Research Associate for the Center for Technology in Government, doing applied research on how government agencies use information technology to improve their public services.
Time and time again, the most common and costliest mistake we saw was exactly what happened with the Census Bureau — a technological change being implemented from the top down, with little consultation with the actual workers who will use the technology on an everyday basis on what exactly they need and would like the technology to do.
This miscommunication and lack of consensus input from day-to-day workers led to poorly designed and inferior technology, which led to its ultimate failure, costing American taxpayers billions of dollars. Time and time and time again, this continues to happen.
I suppose this would be the textbook example of the negative connotations of “bureaucracy” that many of us have — the continuing instances of inefficiencies, miscommunication, miscoordination, and incompetence that leads to public funds being wasted and public outrage.
Ultimately, scholars like me end up paying a double penalty for the Census Bureau’s mistakes. The first is having our money as American taxpayers wasted. But even more important, the second penalty is that instances like this make Americans less trusting of the Census Bureau and most likely, less likely to eventually fill out and return their Census forms.
As this response rate declines, the Census data that we as academics rely on becomes less reliable and more prone to sampling error, and that can lead to diminished confidence in our research.
So for everyone sake, here’s an open note to the Census Bureau — please get your act together, and soon.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Problems With 2010 Census" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/04/problems-with-2010-census/> ().
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