Over-Budget Contract Could Stall 2010 Census

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

A $600 million program to buy handheld devices and create an automated network to collect data for the 2010 Census faces major cost overruns and could cause delays in preparing for the nationwide head count.

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and Steve H. Murdock, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, briefed at least half a dozen congressional leaders and members of their staffs this week to discuss the agency's contract to buy networking equipment and at least 500,000 handheld devices from Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla.

The wireless devices would be used to collect information from people who do not mail in census forms, replacing the clipboards, pens and paper that census workers now use. The network would automate records in field offices, saving money that would be spent to print, store and transport forms and other documents.

But the program, called Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA), has already gone $50 million over its original costs in the past two years, government auditors said. Congressional leaders said officials at the Census Bureau have warned that if they have to revert to pen and paper, it could add at least $1 billion to the $12 billion effort to conduct the 2010 Census.

Congress is particularly interested in getting an accurate population count because it is used to map congressional districts.

"It's important that it be done right so people are counted," said Lawrence Halloran, minority staff director of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the committee's ranking member, was among those briefed by Census and Commerce officials.

"You need to make plans real fast or it is going to be very expensive," Halloran said. "You have to decide is it technically feasible, or you start printing a lot of paper. We think this can work doing it electronically, and hopefully it will be more accurate."

The Census Bureau needs to test the handheld devices this spring to ensure that the equipment works and that the program does not fall behind schedule. But details of what the technology will do are still being worked out, and that has led in part to the higher costs, according to auditors with the Government Accountability Office and a study done by Mitre, a government research group. Census officials decided, for example, that they needed to make sure the handheld devices could send information securely, a feature that added to the cost, a GAO auditor said.

Mitre said the program "lacks a leader with the experience, stature and passion to make FDCA successful. The Census Bureau has a lack of personnel with large-scale IT program management experience."

Richard Mills, a spokesman for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, would not elaborate on details of the congressional meetings. "There are some issues that have surfaced that the census is working through," he said.

Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for Harris, the contractor, said, "We're working to get the most accurate, secure and timely automated system we can."

"It's a large IT system integration program," he said. "It's not unusual for a program to have challenges."

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