- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

With the 2010 census fast approaching, computer glitches, operational missteps and ballooning costs could overwhelm the government’s ability to conduct the once-a-decade count of the nation’s population, congressional investigators said Thursday.

Reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) show that critical preparations for the 2010 census are behind schedule and that the U.S. Census Bureau has no clear strategy for improving the count of hard-to-reach minorities.

Testifying in House and Senate hearings, GAO officials also said the agency lacked a permanent director and it needed to do a better job of hiring trained staffers who could manage a budget and handle information technology systems.

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“They are under the gun,” said Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s director of strategic issues.

The GAO’s comments are the latest to highlight difficulties for the census, which now costs $14 billion and has been beset by partisan bickering. Disagreements over the handling of the census were part of the reason Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, withdrew as President Obama’s commerce secretary choice.

Thomas Mesenbourg, the Census Bureau’s acting director, told Congress that the agency was taking steps to fix some of the mistakes and remained confident that preparations were on track. He noted that the bureau was training 140,000 employees for address canvassing, the first major operation in the 2010 census, which begins later this month.

Mr. Mesenbourg acknowledged that the bureau is facing special challenges of counting minorities as well as a record number of people displaced from their homes because of the mortgage foreclosure crisis. He said the bureau would be spending part of the $1 billion it received in the economic stimulus package for expanded advertising and partnership programs with community leaders that are specifically aimed at improving outreach on the local level.

“We are well on our way to a successful enumeration,” he said.

Lawmakers weren’t so sure.

“The 2010 census is approaching a state of emergency,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of a Senate panel overseeing the census.

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