Skip to Content

Geek Gap Kills the Handheld Census

Geek Gap Kills the Handheld Census

By Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin

Imagine you’re running a very large organization. You have more than 300 million customers, dispersed geographically, and covering a wide range of ages, income levels and interests. The organization’s IT department is involved in a massive multi-year project to survey these customers and make sure they are getting the products and services they need.

To accomplish this survey, you plan to hire about 600,000 minimum-wage workers, issue them specialized handheld computers and send them out into the field. But then the project starts to go wrong. Changing requirements lead to cost overruns producing the handhelds. Then, in tests, some workers can’t figure out how to use them. You’ve got a little less than three years to get the project on its feet. So what do you do?

a) Re-evaluate and streamline the technical requirements so that the devices can be completed on budget;

b) Invest in training for the 600,000 workers, so they learn to use the devices properly;

c) Forget it’s the 21st century, scrap the whole idea, and issue 600,000 pencils for workers to conduct the survey by hand.

For the U.S. Census Bureau, the correct answer would seem to be c).

The Bureau has taken quite a bit of flak over the last couple of weeks, after it announced its plan-and after spending $595 million to have the Harris Corp. develop handheld devices census workers could carry, allowing them to collect more detailed and accurate information than ever before. Accuracy matters because census figures are used when allocating government funds and other resources by district. Census has been scolded by everyone from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to the Washington Post. And while the Census Bureau clearly has a thing or two to learn about IT project management, the handhelds clearly fell victim to some very familiar forms of geek/suit disconnect.

Here’s a short list of what went wrong:

1. Scope Creep. In case you’ve never come across this term, it refers to the parameters of a project being expanded once the budget is set and the project is underway. The Census Bureau accused Harris of underestimating the cost of the handhelds, but Harris calmly pointed out that Census added 417 new requirements after the project was well underway. (We recommend fighting scope creep by attaching a specific dollar amount and/or delay to every added requirement.)

2. Insufficient Training. Geeks and suits alike tend to forget that any new technology requires extra effort to learn. The same was true for the handhelds, but Census appears not to have increased its training time, or even changed its training methods from the pure lecture format it had used for years.

3. No ROI Analysis. Congress made much of the added cost of fixing the handhelds. But no analysis we’ve seen tracks the added cost of not using handhelds, in terms of converting paper answers to electronic data and the larger number of temporary workers needed to complete the task-not to mention the inevitable inaccuracies that will result. Why didn’t someone at Census do the math?

4. Comfort Zones. When the handhelds started hitting obstacles, they were quickly jettisoned in favor of paper and pencils. Why? “Census Bureau officials are more comfortable addressing any such challenges through the paper process, with which they are more familiar,” according to Cheryl Janey, president of the civil business unit at Harris. That’s an important lesson for every geek trying to sell a new and improved technology: Suits cling to what they know; they fear technological change and that fear can make them quick to pull the plug on new projects-even, as in this case, ones they themselves initiated. With more than two years before the handhelds were sent into the field, couldn’t Harris have done more to make Census execs more comfortable with the concept? Unfortunately, we may never know.

To us, the whole debacle looks like one more example of how poor communication between geeks and suits leads to abandoned projects and huge financial losses. We think there were mistakes on both sides-and taxpayers lost out in the end.

Here’s a couple news items about the failure of the electronic Census from Government Executive and Computerworld.

To read more and participate in a discussion, please visit the Geek Gap Blog in the Business Process Expert community at

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
  • Bill/Minda:

    Here’s my “geek” contribution –

    Having been a government worker for 20 years, part of it as a “Fed” I know the danger of developing systems without adequate user acceptance and training.  But having worked in the “private sector” for 10 years now, I’ve seen plenty of projects that mimicked that well-known heavy metal band of my youth, Led Zeppelin (whose name was supposed to have been a play on the phrase “lead balloon,” as in, you won’t get it off the ground, and in their case completely wrong).


  • Hi Jim,

    You’re very right that government organizations are far from the only ones that make mistakes like this…although conducting a survey the size of the Census with pencil and paper kinda blows my mind, I have to say.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Minda Zetlin

  • Hi, Jim, great to have you jump in! And thanks for the spoonerism. “Feeping Creaturism” certainly had to contribute to the problems here.

    And yes, you’re right – this tale of wasted time, work, and money is in no way just something the government does. In fact, this is really a story of poor planning shared between the (no-bid contracted) Harris Corp., a private company, and the government, and not just a sloppy job by the Census Bureau itself. (Although the cyber-gods know the government doesn’t need help in making bad decisions.)

    I guess it’s a team effort of fumbling all around.  Hut-one! Hut-two! Hike! oops….

  • Along with the handheld Census, in other technology news of things *not* happening is the much-discussed “Microhoo” acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft.

    You might be tempted to call this a Geek Gap breakdown, but the impetus for the deal came entirely from business motives (dominance of the free e-mail and IM markets; a fighting chance against Google on search, perhaps).

    But after Microsoft raised its offer to more than $44 billion, Yahoo stuck to its demands for $4 more per share, or at least $5 billion more. Microsoft decided to walk away, to the general approval of most observers, and Yahoo stock tumbled (so far) about 20 percent, though it’s still a heckuva lot higher than it was before news of the possible deal sent it rising.

    In a weird way, this reminds me of 18 months ago, when Yahoo offered $1 billion for Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg agreed to the deal, and then Yahoo (after its stock went down in value) lowered its offer to $800 million. It later raised it again, but by that time Zuckerberg was peeved and he walked away–a move that looks very smart given that Facebook’s estimated value is more than 20 times that much today.

    You have to ask: Why do people keep walking away from deals with Yahoo? Is it because Yahoo execs like talking about deals but don’t want to actually complete them?

    Or is it because they keep letting their machismo get in the way?

  • Bill/Minda – Jonathan Erickson (Editor-in-Chief of Dr. Dobbs magazine) also tells the Census Bureau and Harris Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) story in his “Friday Night Fish Fry” column in the June 2008 issue, readable online via
    with the apropos title “Requirements are Required Reading”. /jim
  • Yup, making sure everyone’s read and committed to requirements at the outset is another way to avoid feeping creaturism.

    Erickson also poses a question we were wondering about ourselves: With every flavor (including chocolate) of cellphone/PDA/handheld device already out there on the market, was it truly necessary to build a whole OTHER device from scratch? Wouldn’t it have been simpler and cheaper to adapt something that already existed?

    Then again, 600,000 of something is a pretty big factory order. Or maybe, as Erickson says, it’s just too simple an idea for a government bureaucracy to grasp.

    Thanks for the link!