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Mailed forms and door-to-door census takers could become a thing of the past, with the government turning to its own files to conduct a national head count.

Reversing the traditional role of using census information for government records, the National Research Council raised the possibility of using government files to produce census numbers.Files on individuals collected for any new health-care program would be a major factor in the effort, along with tax, Social Security and other records, the council says.

Rapidly rising costs and complaints that each national head count misses millions of people have prompted the search for improved census methods. The next census is in 2000, with a test slated for next year.

While "a census that relies exclusively or primarily on records from administrative data systems . . . is not a feasible option for the 2000 census, we believe the possibility should be carefully explored for the 2010 census," the Research Council said.

The idea was one of several included in the report "Counting People in the Information Age," including:

- Increase use of surveys and estimations in an effort to reduce counting errors.

- Reduce the costs of following up people who failed to answer the census by merely sampling that group.

- Develop and maintain a permanent address list for census use in cooperation with other agencies such as the post office.

- Change the census date from April 1 to mid-March to improve coverage of people who move at the start of the month.

- Use multiple survey forms in the census rather than only one long form.

The council report urged Congress not to limit use of enrollment records for the census or other statistical programs.