Too many cooks at Census?

GCN Insider

When Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress this month that the department was giving up on part of its plan to use handheld devices in the 2010 census, the news was presented in many media outlets as a failure of technology or a failure of government.

But it was never explained which it primarily was.

Gutierrez told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science that the Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) project had run into significant schedule, performance and cost problems.

He added that 'a lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors has significantly contributed to the challenges.'

But who was responsible for the lack of effective communication? According to Government Accountability Office reports, it seems that the blame goes mostly to the Commerce Department.

During the past several years, for example, GAO found repeated instances of Commerce cutting budgets without reducing requirements of the project.

What's more, according to a March GAO report, an independent study found that 'the contractor is overwhelmed by a substantial increase in requirements, having thousands of unreconciled (that is, not validated) requirements.'

According to one analyst familiar with the project, the Census Bureau asked for many changes in requirements but wasn't prepared to accept any changes in costs. But the biggest problem, said the analyst, who asked not to be identified, is that government agencies and departments require approval by so many different parties and at so many stages. It's a complaint we've heard repeatedly from vendors in other sectors.

'What you would see here if you were able to look on the inside is that the headquarters designed a handheld based on what they thought the needs were, but then they might not have got the full buy-in from the field,' the analyst said.

'But guess what? The field is where the rubber hits the road.'

'You can design the best gadget in the world, but if you don't teach people properly how to use it and get them to embrace it you're not going to have the success that you might want,' the analyst said.

Marc Raimondi, director of communications at Harris, the contractor working with Census on the handhelds, noted that Commerce's recent decision was not a complete abandonment of the implementation of handhelds.

'They are scaling back their use of automation to a measured approach that they are more comfortable with,' Raimondi said. 'There still will certainly be 150,000 handhelds used in the 2010 census.'

Raimondi noted that the only handhelds being dropped were those that were going to be used in one program ' that for following up on nonresponders.

'That is one portion of the FDCA program, and the FDCA program is just one portion of the overall census,' Raimondi said.

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