EDS gets Census' call

With the next national head count right around the corner, the Census Bureau last month awarded a two-year, $100 million outsourcing contract to Electronic Data Systems Corp. to develop a telephone call center network to field questions from citizens filling out questionnaires for the 2000 census.

The Telephone Questionnaire Assistance program will manage incoming calls from the public and outgoing calls from call center operators who may need to clarify information on forms. The TQA program should process at least 11 million calls in five months—compared with about 6 million calls during a comparable period in 1990—and initiate another 4.5 million calls to resolve discrepancies or get missing information on census forms.

The TQA contract is important to the success of the 2000 census because accurate information is essential for an accurate head count, said Ed Wagner, Census' program manager for TQA.

"Helping get people included in the census affects census quality," Wagner said. "Eleven million households is an important percentage of the overall nation. If we do well, [citizens] will have more confidence in the Census Bureau and the government."

The Setup

Under the contract, the EDS-led team will establish and operate about 30 toll-free call centers throughout the country. AT&T will act as the carrier via the FTS 2000 contract. At its peak, the centers are expected to employ about 6,000 call center agents. The centers will be able to handle inquiries in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines) and Korean.

Each call center will have a GeoTel Communications Corp.-supplied server that will intelligently route calls to the next available call center agent. Each agent will have an Internet-based application on the desktop, allowing any software upgrades to be made via a central World Wide Web server.

Tackling program management issues will be the biggest challenge for EDS, said Shawn Donovan, director of business development for EDS' government industry group. "Handling 15 million calls in a three-and-a-half- to four-month period and 30 call centers nationwide, along with all the issues related to recruiting, staffing and training—managing all this will be the trick," Donovan said.

The TQA contract differs from other call center contracts that EDS has worked on in that it is a short-term contract—two years—and will run at peak capacity for almost four months with virtually no slowdown, Donovan said.

"The trick to call center success is the management, not just the technology," said Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates. "The thing people have to watch for is to make sure they are getting high quality in terms of people and management of the call center operation."

Census offered a similar service for the 1990 census but performed the work in-house. "Since 1990, the call center industry has boomed, and this is not an in-house core competency," Wagner said. "The only way to successfully implement this is to contract out."

The cost of inbound traffic represents only a small percentage of call center costs, Suss said. "More significant are the personnel costs and the costs of systems and facilities. Particularly with the Census Bureau, where the requirement comes around every 10 years, it makes sense to outsource that function. It's a good bet Census is gaining cost reductions this year."

Accurate census data is important because that data is used to determine the allocation of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and it is the basis for distributing federal dollars to state and local governments.

EDS' teammates on the contract include Centrobe Inc., Affina Corp., APAC TeleServices Inc., Call Interactive, GeoTel, Precision Response Corp., TeleTech Holdings Inc. and West TeleServices Corp.

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