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.

Posts Tagged ‘Group Quarters Validation’

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

Monday, October 26th, 2009
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.

Feature: Real Stories From The Census Bureau (Group Quarters Validation)

Friday, October 16th, 2009

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 protecting:

Group Quarters Validation (GQV) is the next major field operation in the 2010 Census. In GQV field employees known as listers go out to places that were pre-identified as other living quarters (OLQs) during the first phase, address canvassing. They classify these (OLQs) by conducting interviews using a 44-page questionnaire. Based on the interview they are prompted to classify these OLQs as group quarters (nursing homes, religious group living quarters, hospitals, hospices, group homes), transient (hotels, motel, single-room occupancy, campgrounds, marinas). They can also classify OLQs as nonresidential, vacant or even housing units.

The handheld computers have been ditched but the hugest obstacle in this operation is paper. I can’t imagine what it is like in places like Kansas where there is probably one census office for the entire state. But in a metropolitan city such as New York moving this much paper through the public transportation system like subway, bus or even in cars is a logistical nightmare.

You have to be a census employee to really fathom the extent of this problem but I will do my best to try to give you an idea. In Group Quarters Validation the lister’s assignment is contained in an address register. The register has the following:
address listing pages: a listing of all the housing units and OLQs in the entire assignment.
questionaires: one or more 44 page questionnaires used to conduct the interview (called survivor questionnaires)
additional labels with barcodes associated with the building (called nonsurvivor labels)
map pouch with maps of the assignment area and blocks in that assignment

The address listing pages contains the OLQs and every single housing unit on the entire block and print on single sided legal size paper. (We were told that the printers can not be defaulted to double sided printing because the Census would be in violation with contract terms they have with the supplier.) The procedural manuals say that the additional housing units are used to help the lister locate the OLQ. But in New York City the listing of each housing unit in each multi-apartment building make our address listing pages tenfold in size. Some blocks in midtown are so huge that the address listing pages have to be divided into multiple binders.

The Census Bureau doesn’t realize this but paper is a hassle. They have to spend money on paper to print it, clerks to shuffle this paper, couriers to move it into the field and back into the office and additional staff to process, check the handwritten work for quality and transcribe it into a computer.
With a hand held computer a crew leader simply transmitted an assignment to a lister and when it was complete the lister could send it back to be approved. Now we are hiring couriers to move these address registers out into the field and back into the office. We also have a team that runs a night shift to examine this paper. Any paperwork not filled in correctly is run back into the field. I can’t imagine what it is like for places in middle America where they have to drive hours. Luckily for us we can get to most places within an hour.

The questionnaire is another problem. Each questionnaire is 44 pages however the lister only asks several introductory questions and it directs him to complete one of the fifteen tabs in the questionnaire. Each interview uses approximately 5-8 pages of the questionnaire. But with a paper questionnaire the lister has to be very careful to follow the skip pattern, ask the correct questions of the respondent and mark appropriate box. He/she also has to write the correct address status codes on the address listing pages and additional labels. The crew leader checks each questionnaire, each label, and each address listing page.

When each questionnaire arrives back into the office a clerk must simply check the questionnaire’s skip pattern. However since the clerk is not trained in field procedures there is an office review checklist for each questionnaire that is four legal size pages. Each non-survivor label is put on a sheet and information written on the label by the lister is transcribed. Then another clerk uses a final office review checklist that is another four pages to check that all the survivor questionnaires and non survivor labels sheets are accounted for and that they match the address listing pages. We then mail out thousands of 44-page questionnaires and non-survivor labels sheets priority overnight Federal Express to the National Processing Center in Jeffersonville Indiana.
With a handheld computer the program would direct you to follow the correct skip pattern and answer the next question depending on how the respondent answers. Then they wouldn’t have to hire clerks to check the skip pattern of each questionnaire and transcribe non survivor labels to label pages. Simply put every piece of paper needs to be accounted for and the task can be daunting. We had staff resign because the older employees simply said that they couldn’t carry these address registers for an entire crew of listers which sometimes are up to fifty pounds. Understandable after all even the young guys in our office have to go out in pairs sometimes to pick up or deliver address registers.

Even time sheets are now paper. Each employee fills out a time sheet for each day worked. He/she gets the a carbon copy and the original goes to payroll.

So between the paper in the address listing pages, the 44 page survivor questionnaires, non-survivor label sheets for the field staff and the checklists the office staff have to run through on each questionnaire, non-survivor label pages and address register in the office you can see the decennial census not only destroys the rain forest, $14 billion can add up pretty darn quickly.

Feature: Real Stories From The Census Bureau

Monday, October 5th, 2009

It’s been a while since we’ve received contributions from real Census Bureau field workers (who obviously need to have their anonymity kept in tact), but as the “Group Quarters Validation” phase of the 2010 Census started last week, our inbox has been overflowing. Those interested in writing for us should not hesitate to send us contributions (details on our contact page). So, here we bring you an account from a Census Bureau employee in New York City:

I worked in the New York City area as a lister during address canvassing and was disappointed with how the operation was conducted. One of my colleagues pointed me to this website some time ago and I felt compelled to share my story. We had alot of the technology glitches in the hand held computers that are widely know by now which included:

* software issues such the program freezes

* transmission problems such as the Sprint cellular network being down and missing assignments and map spots

* hardware issues such as the fingerprint swipe not working

But New York City has its own problems and is a completely different beast in itself. New York City is the most densely populated city in the United States and each neighborhood has its own unique character. The Census Bureau tries to monitor productivity but the very nature of the city makes it very hard to monitor. Since all the units of multi unit apartment buildings are listed separately a lister has to key in every entry. Comparing someone who has an assignment with high rise apartment buildings versus someone who has single family homes is like comparing apples with oranges.

During address canvassing we were instructed to find someone who was knowledgeable about where people live or could live. But locating a knowledgeable respondent was easier said than done. There are small tenement buildings in Chinatown and Harlem brownstones; where there are illegal subdivisions. It is very difficult to gain entry or make contact even if you speak the language. There are also a lot of abandoned construction sites where developers tried to take advantage of the real estate boom after September 11th but found themselves out of money in the current recession.

Luckily for the Census Bureau, the current recession produced a talented pool of very intelligent and highly educated workers. My crew leader was knowledgable and a great leader. From the very beginning he was committed to doing things right. He said that he was continuously told a proper address canvassing operation would be the cornerstone of a successful enumeration. He was thorough and all the work was quality checked by one of the other listers or his assistant. When we couldn’t gain access to a building, he encouraged us to try again and gave us additional work to keep us productive. In the end we had all these partially complete assignments where we had one or buildings we either couldn’t get into or make contact with anyone. However the office was less than empathetic to our thoroughness. Our crew leader told us that Assistant Manager of Field Operations,field operations supervisors (FOS) and crew leaders in other districts would belittle those who were behind. They would constantly say things like ”John’s district is 40% complete why aren’t you 40% complete?” We were told that if we couldn’t gain access to a building after two visits we had to accept what was in the HHC as correct. Many of us were tempted to falsify work and accept what was in the HHC as correct but my crew leader and FOS were adamant about not doing that. One of the other listers found an entire building with over 200 single illegally divided rooms. The HHC had less than 10 units listed in it. If they accepted was in the HHC as true they would of missed over 200 housing units.

At the beginning of the fouth week, my crew leader and several others were written up for being unproductive because they weren’t working fast enough to complete their assignments. They asked the Field Operations Supervisor to approve the writeups. One of the Field Operations Supervisors refused to sign the writeups and they wrote him up also for being insubordinate.

During address canvassing we were to document any additions, or deletes to the address list on an INFO-COMM which is a carbon copy paper. They said that they were hiring clerks to reconcile INFO-COMMs between the production and quality control. The sheer volume of having to go through 2000 pieces of paper is mind boggling. Originally, the plan was to use the INFO-COMMs to help the quality control listers, but they wanted to keep the operation independent so quality control wrote an additional INFO-COMM. All told we wrote out over 2000 INFO-COMMs.

The handheld computer also had glitches. They switched crew leaders in districts that weren’t working fast enough and sometimes just reassigned work. When listers saw their timesheets weren’t approved they submitted additional timesheets electronically. The new crew leader approved it and then they accused these listers of intentionally trying to milk the government clock. They accused half of an entire crew of listers of clocking overtime.

Nonetheless with all the problems most of the listers worked quickly and breezed through their assignments. By the end of the first week we were about 25% done but they decided to train another 100 listers, by the end of the second week we were halfway done and some crews were almost done but they trained another group of listers. Some of these listers were trained and received no field work because there was none. All told we trained over 100 listers who received less days of work than the four and half days worth of training they received.

The thing to realize is that this was a poorly planned operation from the very beginning. The Census Bureau will waste money for government contracts on hand held computers that are shoddy and unreliable and training staff for which there is no work. But they will try to cut corners when it comes to their mission of counting each person accurately. In order to try to save money and finish ahead of other regions they used intimidation and the threatening of employees. I’m glad that Field Operations Supervisor stood up to the higher ups because like my crew leader said to me…they’re just of bullies.

When the address canvassing operation finished up it was alleged that some of the crew leaders and field operations supervisors told their listers since there was no regard to quality that they could skip making contact even going as far as not conducting field work and enter the units at home. There is no way that listers who were reassigned work magically gained access to buildings people couldn’t access for weeks unless they accepted what was in the HHC as true. The crew leaders and field supervisors who finished first were rewarded with additional work. Those who finished last were sometimes “written up” as unproductive and the office terminated their employment.

Luckily this story has a happy ending. My crew leader didn’t fire any of us for clocking overtime. What they found was that the payroll system was mistakenly rewarding people overtime if they worked over eight hours during a work day even though they were below forty hours in a week. Someone was able to view the timesheet submissions in the office and prove all these listers weren’t clocking overtime. It was rumored that someone who discovered this was the same FOS who refused to sign the writeups.

As for thousands of INFO-COMMs they are sitting in the office file cabinets gathering dust maybe someday someone will go through them. I highly doubt it given the sheer magnitude. I think my crew leader was incredible. And from what I heard from some of the listers that met him their Field Operations Supervisor was even better. I never got the chance to see him but I am honored to have worked with someone who is willing to jeopardize his job for what was morally right. I am surprised I received a phone call the other day to work in the next operation Group Quarters Validation. But I’m pretty sure that my crew leader or FOS won’t be returning anytime soon.