Census counts on paper for 2010

Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:56 p.m. April 7, 2008. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

After raising expectations for an electronic census, the Commerce Department has decided to limit its use of handheld data-collection devices for the 2010 count. Instead, it will rely mostly on old-fashioned paper forms, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told lawmakers last week.

In testimony April 3 before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Gutierrez said the change in plans could cost $2.2 billion to $3 billion and raise the total cost of the 2010 census from $13.7 billion to $14.5 billion. The additional money would go toward establishing data control centers and hiring and training new employees.

Some committee members questioned the need to change the census plans, citing an earlier report that seemed to indicate the handheld devices were meeting the bureau’s needs. But Gutierrez said the department could hire and deploy people to conduct follow-up visits more quickly than contractors could provide the number of handheld devices that the bureau will need.

The change in plans pertains only to follow-up visits to people who don’t return their census forms as requested, Gutierrez said. The agency will continue with its plans to use handheld computers for address canvassing, which will take place next year.

The 2010 census was to be the first paperless population count, but problems emerged early on. Initial tests with commercial handheld devices revealed difficulties, so the bureau turned to Harris for help, awarding the company a five-year, cost-plus-award-fee contract in 2006 to automate field data-collection activities. The contract was initially worth $595 million  but later increased to $624 million.

The partnership quickly ran into trouble. The Government Accountability Office and independent evaluator Mitre found that Census’ delivery times and requirements differed from those of Harris. In January, Census officials sent 400 new and revised technical requirements to Harris.

“We had underestimated how difficult it would be to communicate our business model,” Census Director Steve Murdock said. “We really didn’t manage it correctly.”

One of the main sources of the cost increase was the need to maintain a help desk to respond to problems that might arise with the handheld devices. The original contract allocated
$35 million for the support, which was not enough. The bureau now wants to pay Harris $217 million to $220 million to run it. 

At the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) pointed out that the help desk’s increased costs are 43 times the original estimate.

“The costs were not as well-defined at the beginning of the development because we were breaking new ground with the handhelds,” Gutierrez said.

GAO placed the 2010 census on its list of high-risk projects March 5. That same day, Gutierrez and Murdock told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that they had convened a task force to analyze the benefits and risks of sticking with the plan to use handheld devices. Members included former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and two former census directors.

The task force recommended that the bureau take back control of the follow-up visits.

Despite the problems, Census awarded Harris two bonus fees under the cost-plus contract. The company now stands to make $1.3 billion on the deal. Gutierrez said that if Census officials had not decided to revert to paper forms, Harris would have made $1.9 billion.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a follow-up hearing for April 9 on the status of field data-collection automation. 

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