Program failures and the US Census Bureau, a reminder

Fergal McGovern

CEO & Founder

2 min read
United States Census Bureau Logo.

During the early days of VisibleThread in Spring 2008, I used to carry around a positioning slide deck. This, I shared with interested parties; potential investors and early adopters mostly, outlining the VisibleThread value proposition. In it, I would outline high profile, troubled programs.

I would pinpoint how automated defect identification in documents would have allowed program managers not only identify, but reign in under-scoped & creeping projects & put in place effective project controls. The net effect was to avert out of control scenarios, avoiding programs being placed in jeopardy. Interestingly, two years later this remains our core proposition.

One of the examples I tended to cite was the US Census Bureau with its FDCA (Field Data Collection Automation) program aimed towards automating household data collection for the 2010 US census. The program was initiated in 2006 and by 2008 was in deep trouble. FDCA was all about equipping agents with handhelds that would automate the collection of data at the doorstep, cutting out the big expense associated with manual collection and the subsequent analysis of the data.

The quote on my slide deck came from the US Census Bureau’s Steve H. Murdock, when testifying before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives in April 2008, some two years after the contract for implementation was originally put out for tender and awarded in 2006.

“From the beginning, we did not effectively convey to the contractor the complexity of census operations, and the detailed requirements that needed to be fulfilled in order to complete the operations that FDCA covers.  Once these detailed requirements were completely delineated, we had serious concerns about rising costs and our ability to complete a successful 2010 Census if we continued developing the FDCA program as planned.”

At the time, I remember digging into the details of his testimony along with some general research into the program itself. It became apparent that this specific program failure accounted for between $2 to $3 billion of spend.

So, recently I was traveling on the subway in New York and spotted an ad encouraging participation in the census. It brought back memories of my research and it prompted me to wonder how the census was going from a back office or IT program perspective. Did they ever automate any of it I wondered?

I went to the census website to discover that you could not fill out the form online.

One wonders if back in 2006, had prioritization been given to offering a secure online capability and more importantly, if program management had leveraged an effective PMO & review process with the vendor, could this failure have been averted?

My guess is that; had the collection of program documents for each project including project charter, BRD, vision etc. been analyzed by VisibleThread, very early warning signals would have been raised. This relates particularly to automated ‘discovery’ and ‘concept tracking’.

Now whether anybody at executive level would have paid attention is a whole other matter entirely.

At least, I can say that our current crop of Fortune 500 customers, mostly in the Financial Services sector, are seeing the merit of early warning signals for their programs and projects. They are equipped with the information that keeps programs on track scope wise. ‘Preventative medicine’ can often be a hard sell at executive level, but enlightened and battle weary stakeholders see the merit. Maybe with a few more $2 billion fiascoes, we might make headway as an industry. We can but live in hope.


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