As the Census Bureau prepares to ramp up its preparations on a tight budget and schedule, the Government Accountability Office decided a critical $283 million contract was not rightfully awarded.
The Census Bureau is facing a number of hurdles to gear up for the 2020 population count, including asking for more money from Congress as it looks to compress its testing schedule to accommodate budget and time pressures.
Now the Government Accountability Office has added to the burden, by ruling in favor of AT&T in a bid protest for a key contract – a $283 million deal for mobile devices.
Census awarded the contract to CDW-G in July. It covered enumerators' mobile devices to conduct the census. The bureau had originally projected that 300,000 enumerators would be conducting the tally on mobile devices, but that number is now expected to grow as the bureau is expected to hire more enumerators.
AT&T challenged Census's "conduct of discussions, evaluation of proposals, and selection decision," according to a GAO statement about the Oct. 5 decision to sustain the protest.
Census "conducted unequal and misleading discussions, and failed to adequately document its evaluation and selection decision, " explained GAO's Managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement Law Kenneth E. Patton in an emailed statement.
"GAO recommended that the agency reopen the competition, conduct discussions, accept and evaluate revised proposals, and make a new selection decision," the statement reads.
The details of the protest are covered by a protective order and were not disclosed.
Census is not bound to accept GAO's decision. In that case, the bureau would have 30 days to inform GAO it does not accept the ruling, and GAO would then report that to Congress. AT&T does have the option of suing the bureau in the Court of Federal Claims.
The decision comes as Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross is trying to convince Congress to appropriate more than $3 billion so the Census can play catch-up on many of its tech solutions and carry out an accurate count. Commerce is also being sued by the NAACP over concerns of an inaccurate count.
The bureau has begun preparations for the 2018 end-to-end test, which will test the new technologies Census plans to deploy for the 2020 main event. The 2018 dress rehearsal has already been descoped from three test sites to one, plus the bureau expects to nearly double the number of in-person household visits during the 2018 test.
"This GAO decision demonstrates why it is so important for the Census Bureau to stay on schedule with respect to procurements for 2020 Census hardware and services," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has worked on census oversight as a congressional hill aide and a consultant. "There is little wiggle room in the schedule in these final years of the census cycle, and any delay in contract implementation could reduce or eliminate opportunities to test the technology in a real world environment before the census starts."
Public affairs representatives at Census and Commerce did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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