The 2020 Census Faces Challenges: Procurement

Published: November 29, 2017

Acquisition ReformCENSUS

Ranging procurement issues from protests to delayed acquisitions rig the 2020 Decennial Census.

The 2020 Census is facing several hurdles including missing top leadership, program cost overruns and information security dilemmas. The bureau is also dealing with procurement troubles such as an IG audit into the award of noncompetitive contracts and a sustained bid protest on a vital decennial count contract, to name a few.

In September, the Commerce IG issued a report that found the Census Bureau did not follow the FAR in the award of numerous sole source contracts. In fact, of the 28 noncompetitive contracts the IG reviewed under Census, 25 were not properly awarded due to a lack of compliance with one or more key regulations. The IG found that proper documentation and approval was missing and contract files were improperly maintained. In particular, the Census failed in performing sufficient market research, providing price reasonableness and detailed justification documentation and properly using statutory authorities to justify awarding the noncompetitive contracts. The IG determined that the underlying causes for the mishaps are “a weak control environment that allows contracting officials to use broad discretion in awarding noncompetitive contracts” as well as ineffective oversight by the Bureau’s acquisition management. As a result, the IG says the Bureau could have potentially saved 20%, or $9.3M, in acquisition costs had regulations been properly followed and correct documentation maintained for the sole source contracts.

Further, Census awarded its $238M mobile devices and services contract to CDW-G last summer which was subsequently protested by AT&T to challenge the agency’s evaluation of proposals. The GAO issued a decision in October sustaining the protest. The auditing agency found that the bureau had led a flawed evaluation in various respects. Specifically, the bureau asked differing questions to each company regarding bias in multi-carrier and cellular approaches and claimed AT&T did not sufficiently provide the detail needed in its answer. The GAO found that the questions to AT&T were not worded in the same manner as those to CDW-G. Similarly, the GAO found that unfair actions were taken by the Census Bureau in the evaluation of the technology refresh portion of AT&T’s proposal. Had Census acted consistently and fairly, the GAO states that “the protester would have had a substantial chance of receiving the award.” In conclusion, the GAO recommended Census reopen the competition and accept revised proposals for the bid and “ensure that the strengths, weaknesses, and risks assigned to offerors’ proposals are adequately and accurately documented.” The Census is not required to follow the GAO’s recommendation but could risk further court actions by AT&T should it continue with the award to CDW-G.

Lack of coordination, documentation, oversight and management appear to be the overarching themes plaguing the Census Bureau’s acquisition process. To top it all off, the Census Bureau has faced consistent delays in the procurement of key IT contracts. For instance, its field IT contract which is responsible for deploying IT equipment, maintenance and support to regional and field centers was originally anticipated for award by the end of CY 2017 and then pushed to a February/March 2018 time frame. Recently, the Census Bureau has delayed the award again with a May or June 2018 estimate, according to FCW.  Such delays add fury to the fire that the 2020 Census procurement environment is still far from perfect in acquiring the goods and services it needs to perform the upcoming count.