Census RFP calls for phone-in program to support 2000 count

The Census Bureau this month released a final request for proposals for a $100 million outsourcing program that will provide vital telephone call-center backup for the Year 2000 decennial census.

The Telephone Questionnaire Assistance (TQA) program, which is expected to be awarded in January, will manage incoming calls from the public and outgoing calls from call-center operators who may need to clarify information on forms. Census is predicting the TQA will process 11 million calls in just more than three months, with peaks approaching 100,000 calls per hour— one of the most concentrated volumes ever handled by an industry or government call-center operation.

"We provided a similar service for the 1990 census and...we did it ourselves," said Ed Wagner, Census' manager for the TQA program. "We were successful to some extent. But the call-center industry has become so much more sophisticated since then; this time, we thought it better to go with an outside vendor."

Census expects the majority of the calls the TQA will handle will be incoming, from people who have questions about filling out the printed census forms. A significant portion of the phone traffic will be outgoing calls from call-center operators who will interview individuals in households that have not correctly completed the printed questionnaire or have provided conflicting information. The system also will help people who may not understand the questionnaire because of language difficulties or other reasons, Wagner said.

"The most efficient way for us to get answers is by the printed questionnaire returns, so [the TQA] program is an addition to this," Wagner said. "We want to make it as easy as possible for the largest number of people to participate."

By using the industry infrastructure and personnel already in place, Census expects that this program will produce a better service at a lower price than the agency would have been able to provide if it built the infrastructure itself, Wagner said.

The demands of the program will take federal integrators into new territory, said Shawn Donovan, director of business development for Electronic Data Systems Corp. EDS— which has more than $1 billion a year in call-center business and which is a confirmed bidder on the contract— already has a great deal of experience, he said, "but not to the scale of this [TQA] program. No one does."

With just more than a year to pull the whole thing together once the award is made— TQA calls will be serviced beginning March 3, 2000— there will be very little time to work out a solution, so the quality of the vendor teams will be even more important than usual, Donovan said.

A possible glitch, some vendors said, is that Census is requiring the contract winner to use FTS 2000 as the network to carry the TQA voice traffic. Initially, vendors said, Census had led industry to believe that the whole requirement— network and call centers— would be outsourced. "We were very excited about this contract in the beginning and very interested in bidding" said Mike Kilrain, senior national account manager with MCI. "Originally, [Census] was very innovative in wanting industry to pull all of this together, but now the integration of all of this has basically been put back onto the government."

With the network portion of the TQA program handed to AT&T by default because of the FTS 2000 mandate, MCI will not bid on the contract unless it can persuade Census to change its mind, Kilrain said. But agency officials have ruled that FTS 2000 must be used unless compelling evidence shows that the government can benefit from another approach, Census' Wagner said.

-- Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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