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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Government Bureaucracy Grinds On . . .

We all have our dealings with various levels of government. It is unavoidable. I have had more than my fair share of dealing with various government agencies over the years. Some agencies have surprised me with how well they handled their contact with me. Others have been so abysmal it is absolutely no mystery where bureaucrats get their reputation for not knowing their elbow from you-know-what!

I have been in a driver services facility where a pissed-off employee noted down the name of a driver trainee and swore in front of everyone that she would fail her at her next test because of something that the trainee happened to do to anger her. Obviously, this was just one employee venting her frustrations in an undiplomatic manner, and does not reflect the policies of the agency she represents.

But, government agency policies themselves can lead to ridiculous outcomes. For instance, the citizenship and immigration service (CIS) insisted on fingerprinting me a second time for my green card because my green card was not approved within 6 months of my giving them my first set of fingerprints. According to their policy, my first set of fingerprints had "expired"! You would think that the whole idea behind fingerprinting is that they don't expire, but the CIS obviously has ideas of its own as to what purpose fingerprints serve! This same agency then forced me to get fingerprinted a third time when I applied for citizenship even though they already had two perfectly valid sets of my fingerprints already!!

And even more bizarrely, when I applied for citizenship, I sent in my applications about a week before the first date on which I was eligible to apply (to account for transit time by mail). After 10 days, my applications was returned to me with a note that said my application had come in before the eligibility date. I then had to literally transfer the contents to a new envelope and mail it in once again! They could have held on to the application for a couple of days (until I became eligible) before starting to process the application. But their policy instead had them returning the file to me and forcing me to mail it back to them a second time. And the postal service still struggles to make money!

Anyways, my most recent dealings with government bureaucracy have been a little more intimate than just sending an application off and waiting for a response. Late last fall, just out of curiosity, I applied for a temporary job with the US Census Bureau. They had me take a couple of tests to evaluate me on basic stuff like whether I could read and write English, whether I could add and subtract numbers, whether I knew how to read simple maps, etc. Obviously, I did pretty well on the tests, so the bureau was interested in getting me to work for them.

That is when the fun started. It turns out that to be eligible for a government job, all males should have enrolled for the draft (it is formally called the Selective Service System). If they did not, they need to show that they were not in the country before their 26th birthday (so, if you come here after your 26th birthday, then you don't have to enroll for the draft). There are a couple of other exceptions, including that if you were in the country before your 26th birthday, but on a non-immigrant visa (like a student visa), then you don't have to enroll for the draft.

I fall into the second category of exempt individuals. I was in the country before my 26th birthday, but became an immigrant only after my 26th birthday. I explained this on my application form, but nobody in the Census Bureau seemed to understand the issue. Starting early this year, I would get a call once every couple of weeks or so from a Census Bureau recruiter. It was always a different recruiter each time. Each of them would ask me why I did not enroll for the draft, and I would explain my situation to each of them. They would then promise to look into the situation and get back to me, but none of them ever did.

I grew tired of it eventually and chalked it up to institutional stupidity that I could not penetrate. Ultimately, I got a letter from the Census Bureau telling me that my application to work for them was rejected because I had not enrolled for the draft. And this letter included a paragraph saying that if I had a documentary explanation for why I did not enroll in the draft, I should send it to them so that they can review my case. And they actually included an address to address correspondence to!

You see, I actually have a letter from the Selective Service System that tells me they have reviewed my case and found that I did not have to enroll for the draft because of my immigration situation. I obtained this letter from them several years ago as part of the process of applying for my citizenship (you are not eligible for citizenship if you had to enroll for the draft and did not). If any of these recruiters had told me that all they wanted was this kind of document, and given me an address to mail it to, this whole issue would have been taken care of 3 months back. But the recruiters seemed to be reading from a script, and when my explanation did not fit their script, they simply gave up, and either crossed my name off their list, or passed my name on to a different recruiter to try his luck!

I mailed in a copy of my letter from the Selective Service System to the address mentioned, and within 2 weeks, I had magically become eligible for employment with the Census Bureau! And within a week after that, I got a call asking me if I would be able to come in for training so that I could start work later that week. They were desperate for workers and needed as many as they could lay their hands on legally!

Now, I already have a full-time job, so I was not ready to start working for the census anywhere near full-time. I just wanted a part-time gig through which I could convert some of my free-time into pocket money. The recruiter scared me a little when she started saying that they needed workers to work 8 hours a day, including the night shift at times. But I decided to go for the training anyways. After all, if the schedules did not suit me, I could just refuse to go into work, and what could they do? Fire me??!!

So, I showed up for the training last week. The person doing the training was quite nice and all, and she tried hard, but she has been working for the bureau only for 9 months. The whole session was quite haphazard, with various pieces of paperwork and other stuff missing. Rather than any actual training in doing our job, the 4-hour session was just to get all the new hires to fill out a blizzard of paperwork of all sorts. The trainer read instructions from a fat binder while some people filled out the paperwork (usually ignoring the instructions), and others got lost at various places and stared blankly at the trainer or at each other (seriously though, if you don't know how to fill in your name or street address where a form asks you to, and need instructions from a trainer to get it right, you probably shouldn't be looking for work, but whatever . . .). It was significant that only one other person in my training class of 15 people had a full-time job, everybody else was unemployed and looking for any kind of work they could get.

We were then fingerprinted (yes, here we go again) twice (and again), given a thick policy manual to read at home and sent off. I also gave the trainer a list of times when I would be available and when I would not be available, given the constraints placed on me by my full-time job.

A day after that, I got a call asking me if I could come in from 8:30 AM to 5PM the next day, a work day. Obviously, the day time on work days was on my list of unavailable times I had given to the trainer, but obviously, the scheduler had never gotten that information. I once again explained to the scheduler my position, and she then called me later to offer me an evening shift. Obviously, I have no idea what is going to happen when a new scheduler takes over next week or the week after. I probably have to explain to him/her once again when I am available and when I am not! Bureaucracy means always having to repeat yourself . . .!

I showed up for work on an evening shift a couple of days back. I am involved in a part of the census operation called the non-response follow-up (NRFU). This is the stage in which people who have not responded to their mailed census questionnaire are tracked down by enumerators and their information is obtained on forms through a direct interview with the non-respondent. I am one of the support personnel involved in this operation, and it is my job to produce detailed maps for the enumerator showing where the non-respondents' addresses are.

There is apparently a method to all the madness, as I found out when I showed up for work the first time. The bureau office had printed out reams of maps on 11x17 size paper, and it was our job (I was working in a crew of about 10 people) to stuff these into envelopes following a standard procedure. The standard procedure was taught to us by a couple of people who had been doing it for a week or so (yes, we were trained by other trainees, essentially). But it was a mostly brainless and monotonous activity that primarily involved one's ability to read rows of numbers, and protect oneself from paper cuts (they have large bins of bandaids in various places in the office and most people had several on their fingers, from careless handling of high-quality paper!). Now I know what an envelope-stuffer's job is like!

In typical government bureaucracy fashion though, there is no order to the maps or the envelope numbers. Some envelopes get dozens of maps, others get just one. And sometimes the maps are in order and easy to pick out from the piles, other times, they are scattered in several piles and require a detective agency to track down! How credit card and other companies can automate all this envelope stuffing while the government requires an army of laborers to do essentially the same thing is a little beyond me. But I guess that is what makes the government the government! Bureaucracy means never having to be out of work . . .!

I got the hang of it pretty quickly and our crew managed to stuff all the envelopes we were supposed to. I have no idea what the next step in the operation is, so when I show up for my next day of work is when I will find out what the next step in the operation is (it could be sticking labels on envelopes, putting the envelopes in binders, etc., etc.). I am waiting for when the enumerators come back with all the information they have collected because that is when we start entering that information into computers. I will still be a lowly office clerk, but at least I don't have to worry about paper cuts!

The Census Bureau is very particular about confidentiality of personally identifiable information. A huge part of the training manual talks about what I am allowed to and not allowed to do with names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personally identifiable information. They don't allow me to bring my briefcase into the work area (I have to leave it in my car in the parking lot) because they are worried about leakage of such information.

But, ironically, the office manager who sets up our schedules sends it out by email to everyone with all their email addresses readily visible. Apparently, the concept of using Bcc in email messages to protect the recipients' privacy has not yet penetrated even a government bureaucracy obsessed with privacy and confidentiality! And the schedules are produced as Word documents with tables. Hours are calculated by hand and entered into the tables (with resultant mistakes that have to be caught and corrected later). The concept of a spreadsheet which can do all these calculations automatically and correctly has not penetrated this bureaucracy yet either!!

It is not that I am faulting this particular office supervisor, or office. The office supervisor, in fact, is a very nice lady who is always smiling and treats her temporary workers very well (some people don't like her "no music in the office" policy, but it does not bother me that much). But the institution itself is not set up to succeed when it comes to technology. Technology overtook them a long time back, and has never looked back! There was some talk about why everything is paper-based and they have not yet moved to hand-held computers for enumerators. The consensus was that they will probably do the 2020 census that way, but probably using Apple Newtons or something similar from the early 1990's!

Oh, and I almost forgot - we all had to fill out timesheets for the work we did. Everyone has to turn in a timesheet for each day they work for the bureau. You can't do a single timesheet for multiple days. I was in a shift from 4:30PM to midnight. The shifts can not cross midnight because then you would need two timesheets to cover that single shift's time! And these timesheets did confuse me a little in spite of my having filled out all kinds of forms in my lifetime. The problem is that the timesheets are also a way to ensure adherence to policies, not just a simple reporting tool for figuring out how much you get paid.

For instance, the government pays a differential for work outside normal hours. So, all work performed between 6PM and 6AM has to be reported separately in the timesheet. Thus, because my shift went across 6PM, I had to fill out one line for work from 4:30PM to 6PM, and another line for the rest of the time. And you can't work more than 5 hours at a stretch without a half-hour lunch break. So, I had to put in a break at about 9 or 9:30PM to accommodate that requirement. Thus, a simple 7-hour work-shift became 3 lines each in 3 different parts of the form! No wonder there were lots of torn-up timesheets in the trashcans in that place as people fumbled their way through a true bureaucrat's dream come true!

And if you are afraid of acronyms, you don't want to apply for this job. The bureau has huge banner-size posters filled with acronyms taped to the walls so that people can keep all the letter combinations straight in their heads. In addition to NRFU, there are OOSFO's, OOSTE's, CLD's, SCUF's, PUMA's, GQAV's and scores of others! If you want something to put you to sleep on a sleepless night, read this Census Bureau glossary!

But, I am getting a fascinating look just below the surface of a massive government undertaking. It is one of the most logistically challenging operations undertaken by any country in peace-time. In spite of all the papercuts and other snafu's encountered by the operation, it does a decent job of enumerating the population of the US and collecting the information necessary to be collected for various government programs, including redistricting of congress, allocation of funds to every level of government and so on. You can make fun of the government and its bureaucracy all you want, but once it gets going, there is no stopping it! The Government Bureaucracy Grinds On . . . And On . . . And On . . .!!


Anonymous said...

In the fear of 'might make mistake', average westerner seems to have acquired 'process redundancy syndrome' like they complete all possible paths at least n number of times and delay the process itself to indefinite amount of time to make a decision. It helps them greatly sometimes to eliminate wrong candidates in their decision making, but sometimes certainly look foolish to not make use of commonsense to arrive at conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I just started as an enumerator in NCAL and this region is refusing to pay the 6pm-6am night differential--saying that we don't get paid any overtime--I tried to explain that this is not overtime, but I can't seem to get anyone who gets the difference.....any help with this???? I know it is a 'federal law', ... go figure!!

Blogannath said...

Ooh, that sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen! I can't actually help you since I don't have any power in this agency. You are absolutely right that the differential has nothing to do with overtime. However, I don't know whether individual LCO's have discretion over whether to pay it or not either (I would guess not). It may be best to run it by a lawyer.

I don't think this falls under the purview of the EEO process, so a complain through that channel is not likely to get anywhere. But that is another avenue you might want to explore.

Good luck, and please remember to write neatly!

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