Budget cuts could shutter US census handheld plan

The future of a planned US$600 million (C$685) handhelddeployment by the U.S. Census Bureau is in question.

It’s the result of the fiscal 2007 funding bills approved by theHouse and Senate, which both reduced the White House’s requestedamount for census operations.

Although a conference committee won’t determine the final budgetnumbers until later this year, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) plans tohold a special hearing on Thursday to discuss the census budget.Wolf chairs a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committeethat oversees the U.S. Department of Commerce and the CensusBureau.

One of the topics to be considered at the hearing is whether theproposed funding bills would threaten the planned rollout of500,000 wireless handheld devices for census takers touse during the 2010 national census, an aide to Wolf said lastweek.

Wolf said the reduced funding approved by the House and Senate”would be devastating” to the Census Bureau, although he didn’tspecify that the cuts would automatically kill the handheldproject.

Gauging the impact

Census Bureau officials wouldn’t comment about the proposedreductions or the future of the handheld project, saying only thatthey are monitoring the ongoing budget process. The handheldrollout plans remain intact for now, a bureau spokesman said.

The spokesman said that the bureau sent an impact statementabout the proposed budget cuts to House members in June. But hewouldn’t disclose any of the impact statement’s contents because ithasn’t been released publicly.

The White House initially proposed funding of US$878 million forCensus Bureau operations in fiscal 2007, which starts Oct. 1. TheHouse last month approved a budget proposal that would give thebureau $824 million, while the Senate last week set its fundinglevel at $828 million.

The Census Bureau in April awarded a five-year contract for thehandheld rollout to a team of vendors led by Harris Corp. Thepocket-size devices are slated to run Windows Mobile 5.0 and bemade by a manufacturer in Taiwan. Census officials have said thatthe use of handhelds should save “millions of dollars” by reducingthe time it takes to gather data, improving its accuracy andminimizing the need to process paper census forms.

But the costs of the handheld program and the census process asa whole have been called into question by Sen. Tom Coburn(R-Okla.), chairman of a subcommittee on federal financialmanagement. He has urged the bureau to conduct the census online,following the practice of Canada and several other countries.Coburn is concerned about projections that the 2010 census willcost more than $11 billion, almost twice the cost of the 2000census, an aide said last week.