Late requirements sank Census handhelds

The Census Bureau could have used its handheld computers for follow-up surveys during the 2010 census if the agency had defined its requirements earlier, according to officials from the Government Accountability Office.

In an April 9 hearing before a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, GAO Director for Information Technology Management Issues David Powner testified that the bureau needed to send requirements for the handheld computers to lead contractor Harris earlier to avoid moving back to conducting nonresponse follow-up surveys on paper.

“If [Census] had defined those 400 requirements in the mid-2006 time frame, it was still accomplishable,” Powner said.

The bureau awarded a five-year, $595 million contract in 2006 to Harris for the Field Data Collection Automation portion of the 2010 census. Harris produced handheld computers that census takers would use for address canvassing and nonresponse follow-up surveys.

However, the bureau changed requirements on the handheld computers several times, causing delays and cost increases. The agency sent Harris the last requirements revision in mid-January. The revision included 400 new and updated requirements, which could have caused delays and new cost hikes.

Those new requirements and the fact that a dress rehearsal for the census begins in early May caused Census Director Steve Murdock and Commerce Department Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to cut the use of the handheld computers. They announced that the national survey would move back to paper for nonresponse follow-ups. The move will potentially boost the cost of the next census by $2.2 billion to $3 billion, potentially bringing its total cost to $14.5 billion.

[The Census Bureau] went forward with a contract with inadequate specifications and provided wholly inadequate contract oversight,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Despite having its role scaled back, Harris still stands to earn more than twice the amount of its original contract: $1.3 billion. However, if the bureau stayed with using the handheld computers for follow-up surveys, Harris would have earned $1.9 billion.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee's highest ranking Republican, criticized bureau officials for not heeding warnings from Congress, third-party evaluators and Harris about potential problems with creeping requirements.

“This didn’t have to happen,” Davis said.

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