Census Bureau scales back handheld plans, while project costs keep rising

Agency abandons its efforts to automate data collection by field workers during 2010 census

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Census Bureau's plan to rely on automation, instead of paper, to conduct much of the 2010 national census is now officially a boondoggle. The agency is facing a cost overrun of up to $3 billion on the census, as well as angry members of Congress who are looking for someone to blame.

And Census Bureau officials are scaling back their automation plans, reducing the 500,000 custom-built handheld devices that the agency is buying from Harris Corp. to little more than bit players in the next census. At the same time, the size of the five-year contract that the Census Bureau signed with Harris in 2006 is more than doubling, from just under $600 million to about $1.3 billion.

The mood was caustic at a hearing on the census held here today by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations. Subcommittee members received the bad news that the 2010 census may now cost as much as $14.5 billion. And they seemed incredulous about the increase in some cost estimates, such as the ballooning of a $37 million expenditure for an IT help desk to nearly $220 million. Or the addition of $30 million to build a new data center.

As the questions at the hearing grew more pointed, the main witness, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, turned to the audience and started asking Census officials sitting there for help in answering them. One of the people that Gutierrez called on — Jay Waite, the Census Bureau's deputy director — was candid in explaining why the original help desk cost estimate was way off. "It was clear to me that there wasn't sufficient skepticism" applied when the estimate was developed, Waite said.

In the case of Harris, the less ambitious but more expensive handheld plan also drew sharp comments at the hearing. The Census Bureau originally planned to use the handhelds to electronically gather data during in-person visits to residents who didn't return written questionnaires to the agency. Now the devices will be used in a more limited way, to verify street addresses via GPS technology.

U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, accused Census officials of "abdicating their responsibility" in dealing with Harris. The new plan "reduces the scope of the contract," said Mollohan, "yet Harris will be receiving more than twice the amount of the original contract."

"This is not what anybody likes to do," Gutierrez said. "It's disappointing that we have to make this decision, but I would rather be disappointed with the recommendation than with the actual results of the census."

The bleak outlook at today's hearing jibed with a report issued early last month by the Government Accountability Office, in which the GAO put the Census Bureau's automation efforts on its list of high-risk projects at federal agencies. That list is reserved for IT projects that are in danger of failing because of mismanagement or wasteful spending.

At a Senate hearing held March 5, Gutierrez — whose department includes the Census Bureau — agreed with the GAO's assessment that there were serious problems with the handheld project. He and Census officials outlined the agency's options: everything from completely abandoning the automation project to going forward as originally planned. What they staked out today was a middle-of-the-road plan that will rely on automation, but not to the extent originally envisioned.

Shortly after completing the 2000 census, the Census Bureau began making plans to go "virtually paperless" in 2010. But the automation plan ran into significant problems last year, during tests of the handheld technology. In addition, the agency made more than 400 changes to its technical requirements for the handhelds.

At today's hearing, Mollohan said Harris officials have told Congress that the handheld technology was not at fault. The subcommittee chairman was particularly interested in finding out whether Steven Murdock, the director of the Census Bureau, agreed with that assessment.

Murdock, who became the agency's director in January, didn't blame Harris but didn't leave it entirely off the hook, either. There have been issues with the technology, Murdock said. But, he added, the biggest issue is that there isn't enough time to fully test out all the capabilities of the handhelds before the census begins.

According to Census officials, much of the additional cost of conducting the census will result from the need to hire more people because of the reduced reliance on the handhelds and related back-end technologies.

Harris defended its work on the project and pointed to comments made by Gutierrez, who said that the vendor has successfully updated the census database and completed much of the planned integration and security work. "The company and its industry partners are committed to helping the Census Bureau make the 2010 census the most complete, secure and accurate in history," Harris said in a statement issued today.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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