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.

MyTwoCensus Exclusive: Census Bureau Official Debunks 2010 Census Field Operation Myths

The following piece does not reflect the views of and was written by a senior Census Bureau official who has requested anonymity (but whose identity has been verified by

With the Census starting to hire for the largest census operation, Non-Response Followup next month, Mr. Stephen Buckner neither denies nor confirms the length of census jobs but says they will last up to several weeks. However, he is defending an agency that has a long history of mismanagement such as the Harris handheld computer debacle, address canvassing cost overruns and group quarters workload overestimation to name a few. His response does hint at many of the assumptions the modeling and analysis branch at headquarters makes:

Assumption: The average employee will work part time hours (for example 25 hours a week for Group Quarters Advance Visit).

The decennial census is being conducted in the midst of the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. Many people are desperate for any sort of work even if it is short term. These people will work more than 25 hours a week because they have been out of work for months. They jump on the opportunity with enthusiasm because and this is any sort of a glimmer of hope they’ve seen in months. You work more than 25 hours a week, chances are you’ll finish quicker.

Assumption: The average Census employee has eighth grade reading, math and map reading skills.

Due to the high unemployment rate the Census Bureau has attracted very highly educated overqualified employees. Most employees have college degrees and some have advanced degrees. There is no way to measure how quickly the highly educated workforce will work. But they will complete training and understand it much better than those of an eighth grader making for quicker completion of work.

Assumption: The average Census employee will complete about one non-response interview an hour.

The Census Bureau has the same cookie cutter production quotas for the local census offices however it does not account for:
* hard to enumerate areas in urban cities with a large immigrant and illegal population
* high density housing where travel time between assignments is negligible
* rural areas where enumerators and listers can get lost, and their vehicles stuck

Assumption: About 29% of employees won’t qualify for work because of an unfavorable background check. And up to 50% of applicants will either quit or be released from employment.

This leaves about 71% of employees who are available to be hired. If you factor in job refusal, not showing up for training, not completing training and resignations; the bureau thinks they need to recruit five applicants for every one position and front load each operation with 1.5 times the required staff. When you take millions of highly educated, unemployed Americans who were previously were working they are desperate for work then you have favorable background checks, and people who won’t refuse work, will show up and complete training. And although it is a tough job it pays much better than food service and retail jobs so they probably may not quit as easily as the Census model has them.

Assumption: The performance evaluation system for Census Bureau managers is purely based on meeting production goals or exceeding them.

Mr. Buckner says that “we want nothing more than to hire less than what is required to do the job.” This is untrue especially when you consider the following. If manager A finishes ahead of manager B then manager A is the better manager. That is why managers overhire, overstaff because the quicker they finish the better their performance is perceived. So managers maximize their chances for success by hiring the maximum number of people need for the operation.

Assumption: The more quickly you finish the more work you are given.

The Census Bureau rewards those who finish quicker with more work. If another area is working slowly they will assign the work to someone else or take the food out of people’s mouths. Managers assume those who finish quicker are better workers and the quicker they finish the better management looks.

Assumption: Like the military, the census bureau relies on the chain of command and military group think.

The Census Bureau works just like the military chain of command.  If you question authority then it will result in a dead end for career employees and termination for temporary employees. If you don’t like the group you are deemed not a team player or insubordinate. The managers knew that training all these people during address canvassing was unnecessary but they did so anyways because no matter how stupid the idea sounds the agency teaches you not to question authority and do as you are told. So during address canvassing many managers trained more people than needed and replaced people who turned over although work was ahead of schedule.

Any business school model (and it doesn’t need to be a Harvard, Wharton one) can tell this is a managerial economic problem. A professor once told me you can solve any managerial economics problem by asking these three questions. One. Who made the mistake? Two. Did they have enough information? Three. Are their incentives in lines with the goals of the company? The answers are respectively: Census Bureau managers, no and no. The Bureau prides itself on collecting high quality data about the nation’s people and economy. However their managers are evaluated not on producing quality work at the lowest cost but on how quickly they can produce it. There is no incentive for coming in at the lowest cost. That is why the Bureau is getting so much bad publicity lately for over hiring, overspending and false pretenses of good short term employment for the millions of Americans desperate to find any sort of work out there.

In an economy such as this the Census Bureau should do the American people a favor: hire the right amount of people, give them some solid work that pays well and keep them working longer, providing them some hope and inspiration that their federal government cares about them and treat them with the respect they deserve in this time of hardship. Non Response Followup is the Census Bureau’s final chance to make good on their promise to count every person accurately, let 600,000 employees make a paycheck who desperately need money.

It hurts no one if the Bureau hires less people than what they require because the enumerators are smarter in this census so they will be more productive. If the Bureau under recruits then they save money on advertising, the fewer employees work longer to put food on the table. If they over recruit and over hire then they waste money on recruiting and training, there is a false pretense of work and employees lose hope in an agency already fraught with problems. Under recruiting, hiring less people to work longer and making the most effective use of their employees might actually benefit the census. With all the President is  dealing with such as health care reform and two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq I think the last thing he is worried about is getting the count of Americans delivered to him on December 31st, 2010.

Tags: , , ,

17 Responses to “MyTwoCensus Exclusive: Census Bureau Official Debunks 2010 Census Field Operation Myths”

  1. Jax Enumerator Says:

    Last week, I was offered and accepted a position as an enumerator for non-response follow-up here in Jacksonville, Fla. I have open availability and was told I can work 40 hours a week for 2.5-3 months, with training starting at the end of April. I stumbled upon this blog a few days ago, and after reading what people who did address verification said about finishing way ahead of schedule, I’m kind of concerned that this will end up the same. Even if it does, it’s still better than nothing, which is what I have now. Anyway, I have a few questions about the job that someone might be able to answer. What is the job like? Do you encounter a lot of paranoid anti-government type of people? This one’s probably unanswerable at this point, but how long can I realistically expect this to last?

  2. TR Says:

    First of all, as a Census employee who’s worked since before AddCan, this article is 100% spot on. The only thing managers and supervisors are judged on is how quickly they finish. My last Crew Leader was fired because he was “behind” percentage-wise. It didn’t matter to the managers that he was assigned significantly more work to complete, with the same number of listers to complete it.

    It reminds me of The Wire. All this talk about quality and effectiveness, but when it comes down to it, all that matters are the productivity reports that come out of the computer every morning.

    Jax, based on previous experiences, it’s a safe bet to cut that 2.5-3 months they quoted you in half.

    I can’t make any comments about what NRFU will be like. So far, enumerators have visited every house, but with NRFU, you’re dealing with only people who didn’t mail back their forms, which might mean you’re dealing with more anti-government types. (That’s just speculation.)

  3. Kris Says:

    I posted on Mar 25th about still not hearing from the Census, after being told on the phone every two weeks since early January that I’d be getting a call “in about two weeks”.

    Today, surprise, the call came and indeed I am scheduled to begin training Apr 27 and then on to an enumerator position ‘for 4-8 weeks’ or whenever every head in my county has been counted. So, at least in one area of Ohio, the actual hiring has begun. Just thought I’d report some positive news, for a change.

    I currently live in a pretty tame, rural area, and don’t anticipate many people dodging the census around here. But, I moved here from a couple counties away, an area I am very familiar with after being a resident for 40 years. It’s a fairly urban area with rumblings about a lot of noncompliance, and enumerator jobs being difficult to fill ( at least in the past)…many people are ultra-cautious about venturing into some of the neighborhoods there. I hope to find out how to county-hop over to that area when my own is complete, but so far clueless about if & how that might happen.

  4. ConnieL in NC Says:

    I completed training (three days) last week for the group quarters and service-based enumeration count for this week. There were about 25 people in my group with approximately five other groups. I don’t know how large those groups were. During training we were told, “There is so much work. We really need everyone to be able to commit to forty hours for the next two weeks.” On Friday we were given our assignments. Probably a third of the people had no work for today (Monday, the 29th). I have an assignment that might take three hours tomorrow. Nothing for Wednesday. No news on the rest of the week.

    There is over-hiring in Charlotte, where I am based. Lots of desperate people out of work (Bank of America is based here)and anger about the lack of honesty in the amount of work available.

    I think the experience of working for the Census will be an unfortunate indelible memory for quite a few folks, especially at this period of time.

  5. SAS Says:

    Some good points, but I’ll take issue with some of the critique of census management approaches offered at the end of the piece.

    NRFU is a lot more time-dependent than a lot of the other (preparatory) operations the census has done. During address canvassing, it was pretty much equivalent to use one person for two weeks or two people for one week each—the buildings, for the most part, weren’t going anywhere. With NRFU, on the other hand, the farther you get from April 1st, the greater the likelihood that people will have moved (and thus be harder to reconcile between old and new addresses), will not remember the exact composition of their households on Census Day (did cousin Vinnie move in in late March or early April?), etc. So there is an accuracy incentive to get things done sooner, but also done right. Whether that will square with observed census management practices is yet to be determined.

    A few other thoughts:
    –In my area, recruiting numbers are a lot lower than expected. So are eligibility levels for some tracts. So I’m not convinced of how capable some of our hires will be. (Some of my colleagues have been really sharp; others….haven’t.)

    –My sense is that mail participation rates will be a lot lower than we’d like. Also, there’s a lot of talk among certain groups that all the constitution requires is the number of people at an address—I’m fairly sure that those households will need a partial NRFU, even though they have returned their forms. Those households will probably be more challenging to enumerate (multiple visits and refusals, needs to find neighbors as proxies, etc.) Likewise, there’s a larger and more politically fearful undocumented population in many areas.

    –Bottom line: NRFU will have us dealing with the general public to a degree we haven’t in past 2010 census operations. And I’m not getting a welcoming vibe from a lot of that public.

    –So I’d guess that there will be higher turnover and more work than some might expect. (Word to the wise: Spanish speakers will be in high demand. It’s also a plus if you’re comfortable working solo in poorer or sketchier parts of town.)

    –And, for what it’s worth, I’ve been with census for a year now, and have found most managers to be quite reasonable, and committed to striking a healthy balance between doing it quick and doing it right.

  6. Rhonda Says:

    In my office, many enumerators did not have work on the first two days of this week because much of our area does not shelters and soup kitchens to enumerate. Our office in all hands on deck for our count of those experiencing homelessness on the 31st and then we do have a fair amount of work at the Group Quarters.

    Do I think the operation will last until May 14th? No, but it may last until the end of April in my county, which is four weeks of work. And those folks with experience at the end are in a better place to be hired to NRFU, even if it’s after the initial burst of hiring.

  7. Jax Enumerator Says:

    Does anyone know the procedure for when people refuse to complete the form after a visit is? I hate to keep peppering you all with questions, but I’m just curious.

  8. @Jax Says:

    The manuals list several strategies for trying to persuade them (letting them know about confidentiality rules, letting them know what the census is for, etc.) but eventually the case would be marked as “refused.” Then the Crew Leader and FOS would decide what to do. They could assign another enumerator to visit, perhaps at a different time. They could visit themselves. They could decide to seek information from a neighbor or other proxy. In rare cases, they might resort to the fact that responses are required by law, as is access to homes and communities. Or they could potentially decide not to pursue the matter, documenting their decision and reasons.

    I really don’t know what the guidelines are for which strategies to pursue in which situations, and I imagine different places will do things differently. When in doubt: ask your supervisor!

  9. Joe Says:

    Why is it do you suppose that when I inquired about the census data collection method in Key West, Florida is executed using field workers rather than mailed forms no one has an answer? I asked the fieldworker, the group leader and the manager of the Homestead office. No one seems to know why.
    The manager of the Homestead office was the least helpful and disingenuous of what seems to be a culture of no, a caricature of the typical “bad government” employee. I asked him if he could tell me why Key West had been singled out for ‘special treatment’. His answer it was ordered by the Census Bureau. He said it with the temerity of someone who knows he need not be accountable to us common citizens; after all, unlike regular citizens he has absolute job security. It was clear that Mr. Felix, (he nor his staff would not give his last name) would not divulge any of his top secret Census Bureau information. When I asked for the number of the Inspector General’s office he immediately said he was no longer talking to me. Mr. Felix immediate put me on hold and one of his staff picked up the phone. I asked her for her name to which she replied that she would not. I asked again and she hung up the phone but not before shouting “do not call here again”.
    Several of the news reports on the Census site bemoan the below average response of various areas. Perhaps the slow response is due to the apparent absence of customer service of Census Bureau employees and supervisors.
    Come to think of it, when I caught up with Mr. Felix on Friday and indicated that I had called and left messages on Thursday, Mr. Felix indicated that he was in Key West on Thursday. I thought it strange in as much as during my call on Thursday afternoon, the receptionist indicated that he was out to lunch and would be back soon. I wonder if Mr. Felix receives a generous per-diem when he is out of town?
    If this office is representative of the average Census Bureau office I would surmise that the Census Bureau is corrupt, inept and ethically challenged.
    Joe Williams

  10. John FOS Says:

    Of course my experience cannot be reliably applied to the entire nation, but much of this post is spot on, while other parts betray the naivete and inflexibility which is crippling the field operation I’m supervising. Now that production is in full swing, the consequences of sloppy recruiting efforts, rigid decision making, procedural ignorance and butt-covering silo behavior, has created a nearly impossible framework for our team to carry out their duties. Since nearly every effort to staff my operation was inadequate, and the procedures to hire in excess of minimums was ignored, we’re running 30-35% understaffed, while also being hit with the combined pressures of maintaining fast turnaround and the continually and often repeated threat of termination for working overtime (even though the manuals say it’s pre-approved.

    Perhaps it’s typical for a government operation, but more likely it’s the result of a lack of vision, planning, and leadership at the highest level.

  11. Unemployed Census Worker Says:

    Can anyone advise who to complain to (in the higher ranks of Census) about not getting recalled to a Census job, after being laid off? I have encountered several people who have been hired since I was laid off. These people have neither a college education nor are they a veteran, of which I have and am. Should I just go all the way to the top?

  12. Douche Bag Says:

    Jax Enumerator: You can expect 4 1/2 days of training. The job is what it sounds like. You go door to door and try to persuade and work with respondents to fill out the ten question census form. Periodically you will meet with your crew leader to review your work, address your concerns such as households that speak a language other than English or ones you can’t find. If a respondent refuses on the first visit you can just mark refusal on the Contact section of the D-1(Enumerator Questionnaire)

    Unemployed Census Worker: Hopefully you were terminated for lack of work and not performance and conduct. Since you’ve been hired thousands upon thousands of applicants have taken the test. And having a college education or supervisory experience does not make you come up higher on the selection certificate. Also only 10 point compensable veterans are at the top of the list. If you are a 5 point veteran then you are only listed ahead of those with the same test score. And since thousands of people have taken the test you are pushed down. I would write your congressman if you see fit however you may not have any case.

  13. OldUncleDave Says:

    I just finished working on ETL. Our crew was over twice the size needed. I was told I was being hired for three weeks of full time work. I worked two afternoons. Some in the crew got no work at all.

  14. ac enumerator Says:

    I was in one of the crew in Key West. It was a 9 day work. We where in training for 4 days. had a weekend off and on Monday we returned and the leader didn’t have any work for us. Tuesday was the same story. Wednesday we finally had some work and Tursday we all where fire. No explination. Just a phone call telling each one of the enumerators to pick up all Census property and returned them. Not even the Supervisor gave us an explanation. It was unbelivable! Then when my first ck came in I was short of $500. Thankfully I did went to the office got everything fixed but it was a very upsetting going through all this for nothing.

  15. sbc Says:

    My crew only worked for 2 1/2 weeks. The pay stubs didn’t show up until weeks after the checks were deposited. Then no work for 5 weeks, now scheduled for another 4 day training and then hopefully some work. I guess I lost my unemployment benefits. I was on a federal extension. Once I reported earnings to unemployment they sent a letter saying I exceeded the amount I could make. I kept thinking I would get another letter or form from unemployment, but nothing. I think everyone on my crew may have been collecting unemployment benefits. Now that all these people are no longer getting benefits it appears the unemployment claims have gone down. It really is just we no longer can qualify for unemployment! You must apply again for unemployment, and it is calculated from the 4 qtr prior to the one we are in. Needless to say I screwed up. If I get unemployment it will be only a few dollars based off of the $900 I earned in March! If I had never gotten the job The unemplyment would have continued to be based off of my last job. Do you think it was planned this way?

  16. Bozo boy Says:

    How sweet it is! Though they hold census classes 150 ft. from my house, they sent me 28 miles away in rush hour. 50 cents a mile and 90 min. driving each way really adds up.

    The first day, learning fingerprinting, I worked 10 hours.A big NO NO. I was forced to falsify my timesheet to reflect only 8 hrs!
    Onto the field next week. Another 20 plus miles away. And this is the Phoenix area, Not rural. sweet,sweet, sweet, easy money.

  17. bill Says:

    my two cents is the government checking up on it’s employees. the census is looking to hire dishonest people. the whole training reflects giving support to the dishonest. There was not enough table seats, not enough material. The supervisors were of the selfish type people. Their supervisor was the same, that person overseer was also the same. They know what they are doing. They are recruiting a dishonest work force. Even the test recruiters were dishonest. This is a bunch of theives looking to steal honest people’s money. They are in every branch of government.