Census getting back on course, lawmakers told

The Census Bureau has improved its management of the 2010 decennial census project, but uncertainty over cost remains a concern, government and industry officials told lawmakers on Wednesday.

At a joint hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and its Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives, observers from the Government Accountability Office and the research firm MITRE Corp. said the agency was doing a better job of working with the contractor Harris Corp., but the uncertain cost of the contract and an incomplete testing plan for all aspects of the 2010 census leave the program at risk.

The Census Bureau awarded the Field Data Collection Automation contract to Harris in March 2006 for $595 million. The company was to develop 500,000 handheld computers for enumerators who go door to door to count households that do not return their census forms. In April, delays and ballooning contract costs forced the agency to abandon its plan to use the handhelds for follow-up and to revert to paper-based forms. The agency still plans to use the handhelds for address canvassing next year.

MITRE, a nonprofit government contractor that has been closely following the project, was asked by lawmakers in April to conduct an independent cost estimate of the contract with Harris. The firm's projection of $726 million for the life cycle of the field data collection contract was significantly less than the $1.3 billion estimate Harris provided in April.

At the hearing, David Powner, GAO's director of information technology management issues, called the discrepancy "mind-boggling." Jason Providakes, senior vice president and general manager of MITRE's Center for Enterprise Management, said he was confident the contract could be completed at the lower cost projection. He said the company based its cost model on a commercial handheld computer with readily available software and hardware components that could perform the same functions as the Harris handheld.

But Michael Murray, vice president of census programs at Harris, said the two figures could not be compared because they were based on different assumptions. Also, he said, the company's estimate was rough, not a definitive cost proposal. The company will give Census an official estimate by July 15. The agency asked MITRE to examine Harris' proposal and set a deadline of Aug. 15 for finalizing contract terms.

When committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked Powner to identify the key risk to the 2010 census, he noted several: the tight schedule, uncertain cost and lack of testing for the paper-based backup plan.

Arnold Jackson, associate director for the decennial census, said he was confident that after the agency receives Harris' estimate in July the two sides would be able to reconcile the differences in projected costs. He admitted that the schedule was tight, but said census projects typically face difficult deadlines, adding that recommendations from MITRE and GAO for more testing added to the time constraints. Testing of the process for nonresponse follow-up for the census is set to begin in January 2009, but Jackson said the return to a paper-based plan decreases the need for such testing.

"What worries me is we are still no closer to a solution today than we were two months ago," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. He also said the agency did not finalize requirements for the paper-based operation until June 6. "At the current glacial pace, I'm afraid the bureau will not be ready to meet the one deadline that cannot be extended -- the constitutional mandate to count all Americans in 2010."

Census Director Steven Murdock said the requirement changes were mainly clarifications of existing processes. He cited the improved relationship between Harris and the Census Bureau as evidence of progress. Harris' Murray also noted better communication, citing his daily conversations with key Census officials. Harris and MITRE concurred that the requirements process was stable and that timeliness was now the most critical point of focus.

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