Census to scrap handheld computers for 2010 count

Increased costs and performance issues led to Commerce secretary’s decision, which will contribute to a cost increase of up to $3 billion.

Story updated at 1:05 p.m.

The Census Bureau will tell a House panel today that it will drop plans to use handheld computers to help count Americans for the 2010 census, contributing to the increase in cost for the decennial census by as much as $3 billion, according to testimony the Commerce Department secretary plans to give this afternoon.

Comment on this article in The Forum."Today I am reporting to this committee that we will move forward with the recommendation to use a paper-based [nonresponse follow-up] in the 2010 decennial census," according to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez's testimony he plans to give to the House Appropriations Committee on Commerce, Justice and Science, and which Nextgov has obtained.

The recommendation to revert to paper came from an independent panel of experts Gutierrez formed last month. The task force included former House speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and former Census Bureau directors Kenneth Prewitt and Vincent Barabba. Gutierrez said a majority of panel members recommended moving forward with a paper-based census.

In 2006, the Census Bureau awarded a $595 million contract to Harris Corp. to develop more than 525,000 handheld computers that enumerators would use to collect data from Americans who did not send in their census forms. The handhelds would replace the millions of costly paper forms and maps that enumerators must carry when going door to door to visit Americans who did not mail in their census forms. Since awarding the contract, the project has experienced constant setbacks, including changing system requirements that led to increased costs and missed deadlines. Reports by the Government Accountability Office, the department's inspector general and Mitre Corp. all issued warnings that the handhelds were at risk of not being ready by 2010 and may not work as planned.

"I am here today because the Field Data Collection Automation project has experienced significant schedule, performance and cost issues," according to Gutierrez's testimony. "A lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors has significantly contributed to the challenges."

In his statement, Gutierrez calls the situation with the handhelds "unacceptable."

He points to a dress rehearsal held in May 2007 as when "development and scoping problems emerged." The bureau then identified "more than 400 new or clarified technical requirements," he said, which were delivered to Harris on Jan. 16.

At a March 5 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Gutierrez said, "significant miscommunication concerning technical requirements between the Census Bureau and Harris" were a main reason for the failings.

In a statement sent to Nextgov, Harris officials said, "The handheld devices are one part of a larger, multifaceted process to move from a 'paper culture' to an 'automation' culture appropriate for the 21st century. We understand that such a significant cultural shift presents organizational challenges to any organization, and Harris is encouraged that automation is moving forward, even if in a more narrowly focused fashion. 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."

The Census Bureau still plans to use the handhelds to conduct address canvassing, a process to validate and update the location of every household.

Gutierrez said reverting to a paper-based census, in addition to other costs not associated with the handhelds, is expected to increase the cost of the 2010 census to between $2.2 billion and $3 billion through fiscal year 2013. That would bring the total cost of the 2010 census to between $13.7 billion and $14.5 billion. He said the bureau would need an increase of $160 million to $230 million for fiscal 2008 to cover costs associated with returning to paper, with an additional $600 million to $700 million for fiscal 2009. Gutierrez added that the majority of the cost increases would occur in 2010.

Gutierrez plans to tell the subcommittee that the bureau could transfer funds "from existing departmental resources that will fully cover the resources required for the 2010 census. Our transfer proposal would require legislative authority to remove certain limits on the department's ability to make intradepartmental funds transfers, and we are submitting to you proposed legislative language that would provide this authority."

The additional funding is needed primarily to add more personnel to help carry out the paper-based census. Additional enumerators and personnel would be needed to service the help desks, data centers and control system for the paper-based census. Guiterrez plans to tell the subcommittee that additional costs could result from increases in gas prices, postage and printing.

CORRECTION: Nextgov incorrectly reported that the increased cost in the 2010 census was due solely to reverting to a paper-based census. The $2.2 billion to $3 billion cost increase for the decennial census is due to reverting to a paper-based census as well as other costs that are not associated with the handheld computers. The bureau still plans to use the handhelds to conduct address canvassing, a process to validate and update the location of every household. This story has been modified to correct these errors.