Image: U.S. Counties, population change 2000-2010, by Joe Wolf, CC license


Failed IT projects are not unusual in the government sector. Big IT projects are hard enough without the added complexity, delays, politics, and bureaucracy of government entities. But leaving those dysfunctions aside, there is much to learn from these failures. The 2010 Census is one such event, because the factors that led to failure are some of the same ones that kill private sector projects as well.


The 2010 census was to be the most automated census ever. Half a million census takers with handheld devices would capture, in the “field,” household data that had not been sent in via census forms. Harris Corp. was given a $600 million contract to supply the handheld devices and manage the data.

But according to published news accounts, the Census Bureau requested, after the project began, more than 400 changes to the requirements that had originally been submitted to Harris. In trying to accommodate these requests, Harris naturally encountered more expenses to redesign or re-program the handheld units or to redesign thelocke_apport_med data management system that would collect and organize the accumulated data.

The handheld units themselves were difficult to operate for some of the temporary workers who tested them, and they couldn’t successfully transmit large amounts of data. A help desk for field workers using the devices was included in the original contract at a cost of $36 million, but revised to $217 million.

In the spring of 2008, the Census Bureau was faced with a decision whether to continue with the automation plan, because the handheld units had not yet been completely tested and needed further development, in part because of the additional post-contract requirements. The Bureau needed enough time to hire and train about 600,000 temporary workers if the original Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) plan had to be revised or scrapped.

In the end, the 2010 Census may not have been the most automated census ever, but it was the most expensive. The contract with Harris was revised to $1.3 billion, and other expenses were incurred for equipment and other areas that were not anticipated and therefore not estimated. Not all of the overruns were systems-related.

Key Points

Constantly changing requirements increased delays and costs. As we know from understanding the nature of software, a system is unable to simply change its code and accommodate additional requirements on the fly. Why no one put a stop to the additional requirements heaped on to the project is a mystery, but it’s pretty much standard procedure to freeze the requirements at some point in the project. It’s like asking a homebuilder to add another bathroom on the second floor when the home is halfway to completion. It can be done, maybe, but will make the house cost more and take longer to complete. In extreme cases – like the new custom-built Medicaid claims processing system for the State of North Carolina – the project may never end.

Undue confidence in the user’s ability to learn how to operate the handheld devices led to surprise additional costs. The project didn’t plan on people having so much difficulty with the handheld data collectors. But people’s innate abilities, especially in the area of new technology, vary greatly. Nearly every project I’ve been involved in experienced difficulty because of a certain percentage of users not being able to catch on to the new system. This means more mistakes are made with the new system, more support is needed, and in some cases people who were competent at their jobs with the old system simply cannot perform at a satisfactory level with the new one.

In the end, the project was a money pit. The Census Bureau had to revert to pencil and paper when the handheld devices couldn’t be used – which it said would add $3 billion to the cost of the census. If $3 billion is what the Bureau would have saved with automation, then it was probably worth it to invest the originally estimated amount of $600 million, and even the revised estimate of $1.2 billion. Instead, the government paid the full $1.2 billion and had to use pencil and paper. Net result: a waste of money.

Just freezing the requirements alone, at some point in the project, could have completely changed the outcome. Intentions were apparently good – saving labor cost through automation – and I expect there were presentations made to different levels of management in order to gain approval. A well-intentioned project developed by smart people becomes a vast hole sucking time and money into the abyss.