The 2010 census scraps handhelds for pen and paper

Sometimes it's best to go with the old.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published April 4, 2008 10:18PM (UTC)
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Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts all the people in the United States. It's a huge undertaking -- the agency mails census forms to addresses throughout the country, then sends more than half-a-million temp workers armed with pencils and clipboards to homes that haven't mailed back a form.

But the 2010 census was to be different. A couple years ago, the Census Bureau contracted with Harris Corp., an IT firm in Florida, to produce 525,000 handheld, GPS-enabled input devices to replace the clipboards. The agency paid Harris $595 million, but the computers were supposed to reduce the cost of the census -- the bureau wouldn't need to print and transport bulky paper, for instance, and could hire far fewer workers.

As happens often in federal agencies, the transformation didn't go as smoothly as planned. Among the problems: The computers proved difficult and intimidating for door-to-door workers.

On Thursday, then, the machines were scrapped. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told a House panel that the Census has decided to use pen and paper rather than electronic devices to conduct the 2010 count. The bureau will still use the computers before the count, when workers will fan out across the country and mark down addresses in a database.

The ink-based count -- plus increases in gas, postage, and printing costs -- will add up to $3 billion to the price of the 2010 census, bringing the full cost to $14.5 billion; the new money will go mostly to hiring more workers to handle all the paper.

Though there were some technical glitches with the machines, what's most interesting about this story is that it's a human problem -- the Census Bureau's employees simply had trouble adapting to the new technology.

As an agency spokesman told NextGov, "The handheld devices are one part of a larger, multifaceted process to move from a 'paper culture' to an 'automation' culture appropriate for the 21st century. We understand that such a significant cultural shift presents organizational challenges to any organization, and Harris is encouraged that automation is moving forward, even if in a more narrowly focused fashion."

But these problems were not unexpected; risk-management specialists had long warned that when it devised the handheld-census plan, the government failed to consider how workers would react to the new technology.

It's seductive to think that new stuff can instantly reform an organization; it's easy to forget that the organization might reject the tech. Sometimes, the old ways are better.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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