Census management improves, but budget questions linger

Lawmakers and oversight officials must wait until next month to get a final cost estimate for the field data collection automation (FDCA) portion of the 2010 census.

Prime contractor Harris said the company will submit a final cost proposal for the program July 15.
Originally, Harris estimated the paper-based FDCA would cost $1.3 billion, but a May 19 evaluation by Mitre lowered that estimate to $726 million.

“The difference is mind-boggling and makes no sense,” said David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, at a June 11 hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Powner said the Harris estimate was based on assumptions that were different from the ones Mitre used for its estimate. Mitre’s assumptions, particularly for software development and common support costs, most likely caused the drop in the estimated cost, Powner added.

Harris provided handheld computers that census enumerators would have used for follow-up surveys of households that didn’t respond to initial census mailings. However, the Census Bureau changed its plans and decided earlier this year to use standard paper forms instead of handheld devices for the follow-up surveys. The bureau plan to use the handhelds for address canvassing remains in place.

Despite the uncertain costs, Powner praised Census officials for stabilizing requirements and establishing better communication with Harris. Census Director Steve Murdock said the agency will issue no additional requirements specifications for the handheld devices.

However, committee members reiterated that they would not tolerate an improper or incomplete census in 2010. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and 50 co-sponsors introduced a resolution last week that asks the Commerce Department to use all legal and responsible means to count every U.S. citizen.

“Passing this resolution would be a strong statement from Congress that a failed census is simply not acceptable,” an Issa staff member said.

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