The consensus is the Census is borked

No one foresaw just how doomed the computerized census was going to be.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I live in Palm Bay, Florida, the largest town in Brevard County. Why am I telling you this, especially since Palm Bay is famous for absolutely nothing?

The answer is simple: one of Palm Bay's largest employers has apparently completely borked up the census and, in the process, cost U.S. taxpayers billions.

Yeah, I'm proud.

Here's how it all started. Back in 2006, the U.S. government realized that not everyone was going to fill out the census forms and return them like good little Socialist pawns. Instead, the government was going to need to recruit a whole lot of people and send them all around the country, knockin', yes indeed, knockin' on doors across this great land.

The problem was: which doors? And who's going to knock on which one?

So the Uncle Sam decided he would get himself some of them new-fangled handheld computer things. After all, at $600 million it wasn't that much more expensive than a million iPads.

Next: How it all went downhill fast »

So the U.S. Census Bureau contracted with Harris Corporation to put the whole thing together. Harris wasn't in this alone. They contracted out portions of the gig to a virtual rogue's gallery of winners.

At the top of the list was Accenture, who was supposed to "provide mobile computing applications and enterprise support systems". Now, here's the thing. Buying from Accenture might not be all that smart. Accenture used to be part of Arthur Anderson. Arthur Anderson was the accounting firm found guilty of cooking Enron's books -- a crime which resulted in the loss of 85,000 jobs.

Before they moved their headquarters offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes, Accenture did some contracting work for the State of Connecticut. Accenture did such a "great" job that Governor Rell of Connecticut described their work -- after Accenture "lost" tapes containing information on all the state's bank accounts -- as "an unfathomable violation of information security."

So this is who Harris teamed up with for software. Oh, and in case you're not worried yet, Accenture also won a $10 billion dollar contract to protect the United States' borders. The guys who screwed up Enron and lost all of Connecticut's banking information are in charge of border security.

Meanwhile, no one foresaw just how doomed the computerized census was going to be.

It went downhill fast. By April 2008, just two years after Harris won the deal, it became apparent the project wasn't going all that well. The project was scaled back, although the government was still going to buy 151,000 little computers from Harris, and the cost was rising by $1.3 billion.

By July 2008, the Census Bureau decided to reduce Harris' role even more, and simply have the provide basic address canvassing.

Next: Last week, how it got even worse. »

And then, last week, it all imploded. The computer system that remained after the various renegotiations between the Census Bureau and Harris has been buggy and prone to crash.

I'm dying to make a joke here about Harris using Flash on Macs, but I don't want to muddy the already filthy waters of this story.

So now, the government's back to a Paper-Based Operations Control System -- which also isn't working. Basically, once the Census Bureau figured its success was hanging by a chad, the fine government workers there decided to just figure out how to do it all on paper.

This boosted the cost of the census process by another $3 billion.

So, when some slightly unhinged politicians tell you the government is conducting a census so they can track you and know everything about you, think again. They can't get the computers to work and even the paper system is a complete mess.

In this case, fears of an all-knowing, all seeing Big Brother are a bit unfounded. This Big Brother is more like that 40-year-old, slightly drunk, over-the-hill cousin who still lives in your aunt's basement. He's a waste and a disappointment, but not much of a threat.

Besides, Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says we have to have a census:

The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

The Constitution just doesn't say anything about being smart about how we go about it.

If you were going to conduct your own census and count some stuff, what would you count? And if you were going to go door-to-door, what sort of intrusive questions would you ask?

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