Census blamed for scope creep

Bureau could have avoided abandoning paperless survey, contract experts say

Stumbling on requirements

Agency officials who redefine contracts as their needs change often cause program delays and cost overruns. The Government Accountability Office has published several recent studies of such cases.

  • The 2010 census was to be the first time the Census Bureau would use wireless, handheld computer devices. But Census sent 400 new and revised requirements to prime contractor Harris in January, a move that boosted costs and added uncertainty to the agency’s decision to use computers. The bureau scaled back the use of the handheld devices and will return to paper for follow-up surveys. GAO blamed a lack of adequate acquisition processes at the bureau.

  • GAO evaluated a number of Defense Department weapons programs and found that 63 percent of the programs changed their requirements after weapons production began.

  • Three components of the FBI’s Virtual Case File suffered cost overruns and delays partly because the bureau changed the project’s fundamental requirements. A third component of the project never became fully operational for the same reason. The FBI terminated the project after overall costs grew from $380 million to $537 million.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

As the Census Bureau retreats to paper questionnaires for follow-up surveys and scales back use of handheld computers developed for the 2010 census, some experts blame the agency for changing and adding contract requirements.

Requirements creep affects many information technology projects governmentwide. Unclear requirements in the original contract are often the catalyst.

Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer and senior vice president of FedSources, said the best way to combat the problem is to get the requirements set on paper as soon as possible.

“Aggressive requirements management is the solution,” Bjorklund said. But “this is easier said than done.”

Early in this decade, Census officials decided to move away from the paper surveys they had used for the past 40 years in favor of wireless handheld computers. Initial tests with commercial devices failed to produce the results the agency wanted.

Census then decided to build the devices from scratch. In March 2006, Census awarded a five-year, $595 million contract to Harris to create the devices. However, the bureau still wasn’t entirely sure what it wanted. As a result, bureau officials revised the requirements in the contract numerous times. Harris received a final set of 400 revisions in January. The overall cost and risk increased with each revision and addition.

In the end, Census officials determined that using the handheld devices would be too risky and decided earlier this month to use paper surveys during follow-up visits to people who don’t respond to the census surveys they received in the mail. The last-minute change caused a spike in the budget for the 2010 census. Costs for the decennial survey could reach $14.5 billion.

Census “kept changing requirements and [the 2010 census] escalated to three times its cost and is behind schedule,” Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said at an April 10 hearing held by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

David Powner, director of IT and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said if Census had defined its requirements early in the process, the agency could have avoided using a paper survey.

Requirements creep cause cost overruns and scheduling delays in many projects. In mid-March, GAO analyzed 72 Defense Department weapons programs. GAO found that 63 percent of the programs experienced changes in requirements and significant cost increases.

Bjorklund said requirements creep is an unfortunate aspect of IT projects. He said agency officials must carefully consider potential changes to the requirements when they sign a contract. Agencies should visualize the implementation of each piece of the contract and provide feedback to the contractor so that the contractor can measure the effects of a potential change, he added. 

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