Census turns to paper, rejects IT risks

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced today that the 2010 census will return to using paper questionnaires for following up with nonresponding citizens; leaving a much smaller role for handheld computers and cutting a major contract.  
 
The decision effectively relegates the use of the Census Bureau's handheld computers to ensuring that persons are living at the addresses they listed, a much smaller task.
 
The bureau expects to spend an additional $2.2 billion to $3 billion to support the return to paper surveys. In total, Gutierrez said he expects the 2010 census to cost between $13.7 billion to $14.5 billion.
 
The money will go toward establishing fresh data control centers and training and hiring new employees, he said.
 
Testifying before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Gutierrez said the bureau was prepared for the change because the agency has extensive experience conducting paper surveys from past censuses.
 
“Our flexibility to respond to unforeseen difficulties is greater under the paper-based option because our ability to deploy people is greater than the ability to manufacture additional handhelds on short notice,” Gutierrez said in his opening statement.
 
Originally Census enumerators would use Harris-developed handhelds for both canvassing and nonresponse follow-ups as a part of the agency’s Field Data Collection Automation program for the 2010 census.
 
The bureau awarded Harris a 5-year, $595 million cost-plus contract in 2006 for the handhelds.  The agency later revised the amount to $624 million. Currently, Harris stands to make $1.3 billion from the contract. If Census stuck with the handhelds for non-response followup, Gutierrez said that Harris would have made roughly $1.9 billion.
 
He attributed the ballooning costs to problems with shifting requirements, which forced the bureau to re-evaluate its position on the contract.
 
The decision comes almost a month after Gutierrez and Census Director Steve Murdock told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee they were considering a move back to paper for nonresponse follow-ups.  
 
The two officials revealed that they formed an independent panel of experts – which included former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and two former census directors – to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of going back to paper.

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