Monday, April 07, 2008

Manual data collection for the 2010 Census

Census abandons handheld devices for 2010 count

After years of trying to ramp up a system for collecting data for the 2010 census using handheld computers, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress on Thursday that the department was giving up on the plan.

The Field Data Collection Automation project “has experienced significant schedule, performance and cost issues,” Gutierrez told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. He added that “a lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors has significantly contributed to the challenges.”

GCN has not yet been able to reach the contractor — Harris Corp. — for comment.

When you bid on something as high profile as the census, you need to arrange for good communication with the government contracting officer.

When you mess up a high profile contract, your flack needs to be available for comment. Directly you hear that the Government Accountability Office is looking into your contract, and that Congress will be holding hearings, you need to prepare your response. You can’t hide under a bed in a situation like this.

Census counts on paper for 2010

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 $5 million for the support, which was not enough. The bureau now wants to pay Harris $217 million to $220 million to run it.

Was Harris retained as part of a competitive bid? If so, did the original request for bid specify delivery dates? Did the original contract specify delivery dates? Why did Harris agree if they could not make delivery deadlines? Why did they agree to an unrealistic help desk budget? I look forward to additional coverage.

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