Estimate shrinks for Census' handheld contract

The Census Bureau’s data collection contract for the 2010 census might cost  hundreds of millions less than previously estimated.

In a briefing May 19, independent evaluators from MITRE estimated the Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) portion of the 2010 census might cost roughly $717 million.

The estimate is hundreds of millions less than the $1.3 billion that FDCA contract holder Harris originally estimated on April 8. The figure is also only slightly higher than the original $624 million cost-plus award fee contract that Census awarded the company in 2006.

The biggest changes come from the costs for the help desk, software development and support, which had been overestimated by $67.9 million, $198.8 million and $299.3 million respectively.

MITRE's evaluators said the volume of expected calls was too generous and that Harris' rates for support employees were above that of the General Services Administration's schedule. Census’ choice to transition to paper for nonresponding follow-up surveys led to the decreased estimate for software development.

Commerce Department and Census officials are renegotiating the contract with Harris to see which portions could be changed to a fixed-price contract model. MITRE's evaluators recommended that Census move anything hardware-related off cost-plus.

Despite the lower estimate, overall costs for the 2010 census remain high. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez testified before House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee that the census would cost as much as $3 billion more than previously thought, bringing the census' total cost to an estimated $14.5 billion. To counter those costs, he said the bureau needed additional funding for 2008 to continue functioning.

Census spokesman Stephen Buckner said although the bureau was still reviewing MITRE’s findings, the agency still needed that money.

“Our funding requirements for 2008 have not changed,” Buckner said.

MITRE's evaluators also agreed with that view. They wrote that 2008 funding levels should still be met to ensure that no work interruptions occur, and the final cost of the census is still unknown.

This is because Harris still must submit a cost proposal. Harris spokesman Marc Raimondi said the original figure was only an initial estimate, and that the proposal will reflect a more accurate figure.

“We’re currently working on a proposal, and we’ll submit it to our customer,” Raimondi said.

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