Census pushes for $795 million for handhelds

Cost is lower than previous estimate, but bureau still faces developing and paying for fingerprinting up to 1 million workers for 2010 count.

The Census Bureau and the prime contractor in charge of developing handhelds to collect new addresses for the 2010 decennial census are close to finalizing the terms of the controversial contract, sources familiar with the negotiations tell Nextgov.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Census officials want to spend about $795 million on the handheld computers, which will be equipped with Global Positioning System technology that temporary workers will use to input into the bureau's database addresses that did not exist when Census conducted the last decennial count in 2000. The price tag is significantly less than the $987 million estimate Harris Corp., the prime contractor developing the handhelds, told Census in July it would cost. In May, the nonprofit government research firm MITRE Corp. pegged the cost of the handhelds at $681 million. Census wants to have a new contract in place by Oct. 1.

The negotiations are the result of Census's decision to scale back its plans to use handheld computers in the decennial count. The bureau had intended to use the computers to collect new addresses, check existing ones, and go door to door counting household members who did not return census forms, which it estimates will be about 108 million people. In March 2006, Census awarded Harris a $595 million contract to develop 500,000 handheld computers. Census has spent $350 million on the handhelds so far, an amount that is included in its $795 million figure.

But the project encountered repeated delays and cost overruns, leading Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to announce in April that Census would revert to traditional paper forms for counting households and scrap plans to use the handhelds in the count. Gutierrez said the bureau still will use 150,000 handhelds as part of its address canvassing exercises in 2009.

Census has reworked the contract, lowering its cost by moving several functions back in-house, sources said. The most significant change is the bureau will provide help desk and technology support for field workers and its local offices. Harris had those responsibilities under the previous contract and now will provide only minor support. The moves are expected to cut about $97 million from the contract, but will increase costs within Census to rise by almost the same amount.

The bureau has left open the possibility of assuming greater responsibility for field operations from Harris, but added the two sides were making good progress toward hammering out the terms of the new contract, said Census Director Steven Murdock in an interview with Nextgov in August.

A Harris spokesperson said both sides have worked closely to finalize the details of the contract, characterizing the relationship between Census and Harris as significantly improved in recent weeks. Both Harris and Census declined to comment on the specifics of ongoing negotiations.

Census faces another major challenge before the 2010 count with its plan to fingerprint and run background checks on as many as 1 million temporary workers it needs to hire to conduct the count. In 2000, the bureau conducted background checks using just workers' names, but received a waiver from the Office of Personnel Management so it could forgo fingerprinting workers. Murdock told lawmakers at a hearing in June that Census did not plan to ask for a waiver for the 2010 count because during the 2000 count, four temporary employees were charged with undisclosed crimes but were not convicted.

Sources said Census plans to work closely with the FBI to fingerprint temporary workers, but the final cost and schedule of the program is uncertain. The Commerce Department's inspector general released in August a report that questioned Census' plan and cost for running background checks.

In April, the agency said it would cost about $494 million to conduct background checks and fingerprint temporary workers but lowered the estimate to $348 million in May after receiving suggestions from the IG on how to reduce costs. The IG repeatedly has expressed concern about the uncertainty of the cost to fingerprint workers and recommended Census finalize its plans and cost estimates as soon as possible to reduce the risk that costs and schedules could become unmanageable.

Sources on the Hill expressed some skepticism that Census would be able to complete its testing program in time to conduct its address canvassing scheduled for April 2009. The source also questioned whether Census would have the personnel and expertise on hand to manage the support operations that it is taking over from Harris.