My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Tales From The Field: Group Quarters Validation Enables Costs To Soar

As the “Group Quarters Validation” phase of the 2010 Census is well underway, we bring you another detailed account from a Census Bureau employee in New York City (Those interested in writing for us should not hesitate to send contributions…details on our contact page) whose anonymity we are committed to protecting. If you are wondering why there have been so many cost overruns at the Census Bureau, check out the following:

Group Quarters Validation started across the country four weeks ago (September 21st) when the office telephoned about two hundred listers and told them it was going to five weeks of work. Several times I overheard the managers say that we had the largest workload in the nation. The Census headquarters originally estimated our workload to be approximately 37,000 OLQ cases in about 800 blocks. But the number of cases was misleading because sometimes entire multi unit buildings and their units were classified as OLQs. Headquarters later estimated the OLQ workload by counting unique basic street addresses (a house number and street name).  They estimated about 8,800 unique street addresses in about 800 blocks, implying each block averaged about ten unique OLQs. I’ve only been in New York a few years but in this city I know that there is not a single block with ten churches, homeless shelters, hostels or hotels.

During the week when we were preparing questionnaires and field staff were being trained it was becoming clearer that there were only about 1,500 unique OLQs. With over two hundred field employees if each lister conducted a couple of ten minute interviews they would be completed in a matter of days. By the time the office knew what hit them the field operation winded down. It was only the first week.

But for those in the office the nightmare was just beginning. In the first few days the twelve office clerks were so inundated with checking in work from the field that we could not keep up and were backlogged for days. Census headquarters overestimated the productivity of quality control clerks who had no field training and had to review every questionnaire using a four page checklist and write every corresponding non-survivor 14 digit bar code manually on a sheet of paper. The initial office review of each questionnaire, manual transcribing of non-survivor labels and final office review of the work was so slow that none of the work could be shipped to the National Processing Center (NPC) in Jeffersonville, Indiana fast enough.

When the field work dwindled we did bring in a few listers who were familar with the procedures and they simplified everything for us. But the office managers (LCOM, AMQA, AMFO and some guy with a German accent) who knew nothing about procedures, sat around, twiddled their thumbs, raised their voices and continuously talked down to us for not processing work fast enough. At first we began processing non survivor labels by placing them on a single non-survivor label page. However since headquarters overestimated the number of OLQs they produced too many 44 page questionnaires and not enough non-survivor label pages. Since each questionnaire and non survivor label page had a unique bar code used for scanning at the NPC we could not photocopy these pages. So when we ran out of single label pages to put labels on, the new nationwide procedure was to slap these labels on the full 44 page questionnaires. So we started mailing full 44 page questionnaires with only two pages filled out back to NPC.


The Bureau was not willing to be flexible with their deadline of four weeks. So, of course the New York Region panicked. They started sending people from the Rocky Hill and Hoboken New Jersey offices; even flew in managers from Greensboro, North Carolina to help us and authorized overtime for everyone: clerks, office supervisors and even managers. What didn’t make sense to me was why they sent New Jersey field employees who are paid for their travel time. They have to travel two hours to our office and two hours home so their time working in the office was only four hours, when they could of simply hired some of the hundreds of listers from our county that only received a week’s worth of work.

The Census Bureau managers seem to rely on panicking to make brash decisions that will skyrocket their costs. We are told that we are not to work overtime without supervisor approval but they’ll then offer everyone overtime, pay for New Jersey people to commute half a day and fly people from across the country to help us finish the operation. I’m disappointed that no one at the local office, regional or even at headquarters caught this error that could of possibly saved us thousands of dollars. We could of simply hired just fifty listers to work the full four weeks and saved at least $100,000. Instead we trained 228 listers for a week to work just a week.

Today was the first day of the fourth week of the operation and we finished the operation last night after two weeks of twelve hour days. While I’m glad to have gotten overtime pay I am a little saddened we are four days ahead of schedule and will all be let go for lack of work. I can’t imagine what the dent in the wallet of the federal government must of been not only in our office but across the country to print all those questionnaires and then have to ship them to NPC with only two pages filled out, not to mention the overtime.

During the operation, hearing listers speak about problems in the field were the best stories to pass the time doing repetitive work. We were getting hammered by mistakes made during address canvassing, including the entire high rise apartment building classified as OLQ and missed buildings in areas where they told listers to work quicker during address canvassing or risk losing their jobs. These missing buildings could only be missed if the lister didn’t go out into the field. Listers may have a problem with the outhouse or storage shed listed as an OLQ. But how do you deal with the high rise apartment building where the lister marked every unit an OLQ?  Then how do you slap thousands of labels on 44 page questionnaires, fill out the first and last page only and box them to ship to NPC?

At the very least Census didn’t train extra people during the operation and now they actually have a quality control system to prevent field employees from falsifying information. I suppose things are going better at this point but I am not even going to voice my concern to them because it will fall upon death ears. They are going to wipe their hands clean and say that we were told it would be about five weeks and we could be released earlier. Certainly the listers in the field didn’t expect to only be working just a few days in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

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3 Responses to “Tales From The Field: Group Quarters Validation Enables Costs To Soar”

  1. Ex-IT Says:

    We ran into different problems in a mostly rural area, but much of this is familiar to what we just went through.

    Address Canvassing came up with over 6000 OLQs. Later this number almost doubled when another database was merged in (with many, many duplicates). In reality, there were less than 400 group quarters. The listers address canvassing were not properly trained and this had a major impact on GQV. Entire neighborhoods of houses had been map spotted as OLQs, there were motels where every room was map spotted, even obvious tool sheds and barns were sometimes listed as OLQs.

    Within a few days of the start of operations, the number of questionnaires from field was below the pre-set quotas. Part of this was due to the fact that the CL’s needed to make observations and preferred to give listers simpler cases first with a small number of cases per Address Register. There was high attrition of production and QC clerks during training, and not replaced. In addition, there was really no calculation of how many clerks would be needed. Errata and addendum to the manuals were still arriving during and in some cases after training.

    The reaction from DC and RCC was almost immediate: abuse and threats directed at the AMFO, AMQA and GQS, but little constructive help. The only things they cared about was the number of cases checked in and number shipped. Untrained office staff was thrown in to help speed up the check in and QC operation. Management’s position seemed to be that QC was a simple task that anybody could learn in five minutes and was clueless how offensive this attitude was to the people performing the work. Overtime, which was strictly forbidden at the start of the operation, became expected and everyone was exhausted. I have no idea how much quality suffered.

    We also ran out of NSL pages and boxes and resorted to using the 44-page questionnaires. I should also point out that these were shipped by FedEx Priority Overnight, so the added cost was probably significant.

    In the end, we finished ahead of schedule. The staff was once again released from employment earlier than they expected. The upper and middle management at RCC and DC seems happy to take credit for finishing ahead of schedule, but has made it clear that the office staff will be blamed if there are quality issues.

  2. Anonymous CL Says:

    One week of GQV field work was all my team got, too.

    Many valid points in this post. But there are a couple of notable typos that detract from it:
    “when they could of simply hired some of the hundreds of listers” – could have
    “We could of simply hired just fifty listers to work the full four weeks” – could have
    “I am not even going to voice my concern to them because it will fall upon death ears.” – deaf ears

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