Census Back to Pen and Paper

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

The government is dropping plans to use handheld computers to count millions of people, citing problems with a contract that was intended to make the 2010 Census the nation's first high-tech head count.

The Census Bureau had planned for its workers to use wireless handheld devices to collect information from people who don't mail in forms, replacing the clipboards, pens and paper that they used in the past. The agency hired Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., under a $600 million contract, to build 500,000 handheld computers and create a system to manage the data, as well as other services.

But problems with the devices and a long list of changes that census officials asked for -- at one point reaching 417 new or clarified technical requirements -- vastly increased costs and made officials question whether the plan was manageable.

"The handhelds have not been tested in the field," said Stephen Buckner, a Census Bureau spokesman. "So reverting back to paper, which we've done in the past and know we can do, lessens the risk."

The census is important because the results are used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and state legislatures. Census data are also used to determine spending for education, transportation and other programs.

Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, said the Census Bureau and Harris "each contributed to today's crisis," but not correcting the problems early on turned "the crisis into an emergency."

Now the contract with Harris is expected to balloon to $1.3 billion, though the Census Bureau is reducing the number of handhelds it is buying to 151,000. The handhelds will still be used to check residential street addresses using the Global Positioning System. But 600,000 temporary workers will be needed to collect information from those who don't return census forms.

Harris has already been paid $236 million.

Census officials didn't clearly say what they wanted from the contractor in its program, Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA), resulting in higher costs and a risky project, according to auditors at the Government Accountability Office and a study done by Mitre, a nonprofit government research group.

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez told Congress yesterday that the cost of counting the nation's 300 million residents will skyrocket by as much as $3 billion, bringing the bill for the 2010 Census to $14.5 billion, the highest ever.

Gutierrez, who oversees the Census Bureau, said the FDCA project "has experienced significant schedule, performance and cost issues." Steve H. Murdock, director of the bureau, said, "We now understand that the problem with the FDCA program was due to a lack of communication between the Census Bureau and the prime contractor.

"We did not effectively convey to the contractor the complexity of census operations and the detailed requirements that needed to be fulfilled."

Among the problems with the handhelds, bureau officials said, was that they were difficult for some temporary workers to use in tests last year. In addition, the computers, which are slightly larger than a cellphone, could not transmit large amounts of data. Harris said it has fixed that problem.

The $3 billion increase to the overall cost of the census is partly due to bad estimates. For example, Gutierrez said the original contract with Harris called for paying $36 million to operate a help desk that would assist census-takers who have computer problems. That figure jumped to $217 million.

"It was a bad estimate," Gutierrez said. "I can't think of a better way to say it. Harris gave us the number. We accepted it. It was totally underestimated."

Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for Harris, said in an interview that the cost of the contract increased because the agency wanted more.

"We bid what they asked for in the request for proposal," Raimondi said. "But there were additional requirements in what they wanted that led to the new cost estimates."

The Census Bureau also needs to spend about $100 million more for computer equipment in local offices that log the handwritten data gathered. Census officials also said they underestimated personnel costs by about $1 billion, and that $300 million more will be needed because of higher prices for gasoline, postage and printing.

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