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Saturday, June 26, 2010

My Last Day With The Census Will Be July 1

So, the big mystery came to a pretty predictable end. I was told today that I will not be working after July 1st at the local census office. I had already requested days off from July 2nd to the 11th for a long-planned vacation, so it was just a question of whether I would have any work left after I came back. The answer was that there would probably be not enough work to leave me on the payroll and give me any hours after I come back. So, they are going to complete the formality of taking me off the payroll before I leave on vacation.

This coming week is actually shaping up to be very busy though. I am being scheduled for over 20 hours of work this week, and several others who don't have to juggle two jobs (and have a full week to work) are getting a full 40-hour schedule out of the census bureau. The work is supposed to be very short-lived though, which is why they don't want me coming back from vacation with any hopes for more work.

Now that all the EQ's (enumerator questionnaires) are in and taken care of, the next step in the NRFU process (Non-response follow-up) is called Vacant/Delete Check (VDC). This is the step in which a small subset of the enumerators go out into the field once again and verify each address that was either identified as vacant, or was identified to be deleted from the database during the NRFU enumeration.

Addresses can be marked for deletion for a variety of reasons. The house may not exist at the address provided. For instance, we got a bunch of addresses meant for a city in Minnesota that we are 500 miles away from because they coded up the state wrong. Houses get converted to offices and other non-residential uses. Houses get destroyed in fires, floods and other natural disasters, or they are demolished for other reasons.

During VDC, all such addresses are double-checked to make sure that what was marked as a vacant or delete is really in that condition. To enable that, our office has to re-prepare the binders (the ones we put together for the original NRFU enumeration) for the VDC process. The process of re-preparing these binders is what kept me busy today, and will probably keep me busy for the next week.

Essentially, after the binders were turned in by the crew leaders at the end of the NRFU enumeration, we verified that they had been completed correctly. Part of the verification process was to make sure that every address in the address list inside each binder had a designation next to it telling whether the address was occupied, vacant or marked for deletion.

These addresses are then re-canvassed as part of the VDC process. So, to re-prepare the binders for this task, we have to make sure the address list is complete and accurate, and make sure all the maps necessary for the enumerators to locate the addresses in the list are part of the binder.

You may remember that when I started working for the census bureau, I was involved in preparing these binders the first time. Stuffing maps in envelopes, printing and arranging the address lists, etc. was all done at that time. This time, we don't have to actually print anything if everything is in order, and we certainly don't have to prepare EQ's. But, we do have to verify that the address list is complete, and the map envelope has all the maps required.

This is once again a labor-intensive process. When the binders were initially turned in, nobody thought to tell us that for the next step in the process, they need to be complete in terms of address lists and maps. So, nobody verified those aspects of the binders when they were turned in. Binders were boxed up and put away, and I have already talked about the ad hoc methods that were invented to keep track of the binders that were turned in as opposed to those that were still out in the field. The nightmare of all that is now over (it turns out we are missing one binder, and nobody has any idea where it is. The person who last signed for it no longer works for the census bureau, so the binder is now presumed lost forever!).

But the nightmare of re-preparing the binders for VDC just got started. Because the binders were never checked with the VDC process in mind, we have to reopen every binder and check the contents all over again. The binders are now in the office in boxes stacked all over the place, so as usual, it is a lot of heavy lifting getting the boxes down on the floor, checking the binders in them, packing them back into the boxes and putting them away.

Now, this would have been OK if someone had actually come up with a good way to keep track of binders that had been checked already so that they don't get checked again and again. I know this is not rocket science, but the census bureau is staffed with supervisors who don't seem to be significantly better than chickens with their heads cut off, when it comes to organization and project-planning or execution. Moreover, because of the number of supervisors and the fact that each of them comes in to work only for a few hours a week, any method invented by one supervisor goes out the window when his/her shift is gone, and the new supervisor promptly sits down and reinvents the wheel!

This has been going on for the past 3 days now. There are boxes of binders all over the place and nobody can tell which have been checked and are fully ready for the VDC process, which have been checked and are missing stuff that needs to be printed and added to the binder, and which binders have never been checked at all. The chaos and pandemonium at the office gives new meaning to the phrase government inefficiency!

Finally, in today's shift, my supervisor came up with a method of attaching a label to each box of binders that contains a list of all the binders in the box, and then some checkboxes to indicate whether it has been verified, whether all the contents are there as they should be, and whether the box is ready to be shipped out. Hopefully, nobody will mess up the labels, and we will get some actual useful work done during the next few shifts because of this "ingenious" solution!

I was involved in the actual task of verifying several boxes of binders during my shift today. The process, as I commented to someone working with me, is actually more time-consuming than putting the binders together in the first place. To put the binders together, we simply printed out the address sheets, 3-hole-punched them, and added them to the binder. Then we printed out and stuffed maps into the map envelope and that was about it.

To verify the binders, we had to open the binder and go through each page of the address list to make sure none were missing (we obviously saved paper by not printing out a new address list, but the trade-off was more time spent in making sure that the address list was complete). We also had to make sure that all the sheets of paper were securely attached to the 3 rings of the binder. If sheets were falling out because the holes had torn through to the edge of the paper, we had to put plastic reinforcing rings around the holes to make sure they were secure. This was very time-consuming since in many cases, several sheets of paper had torn out of one or two of the rings.

Then came the map envelope itself. We had to open the envelope and verify that its contents corresponded to the (census) block list of the binder. Since the maps need not be in any particular order inside the envelope, this was a laborious process of taking out all the maps in the envelope, rearranging them in the correct order, identifying missing maps (if any are missing, we have to print and insert them into the envelope in the correct order), then reclosing the envelope. We found several envelopes that were completely empty (one even had a note stating that the maps had been destroyed, we have no idea why or how), and many that were missing a couple of maps.

There were also map envelopes whose contents had been interchanged due to careless handling by the enumerators of the binders assigned to them. Sometimes we caught this switching and did not waste paper printing out new maps. Other times, we would find one envelope with the wrong maps, but we would not be able to locate the other binder in which these maps belong so that we could get the switched maps (the maps have no indication on them as to which binders they go with, only the binders have a sheet telling us which maps go with them). So, the office now has several "extra" maps that were found in the wrong envelopes, and we will probably end up destroying them eventually.

The whole process was quite messy, time-consuming and tiring. And I am only guessing at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised if we were told sometime next week that the way we were re-preparing the binders was all wrong, and we had to do something totally different. And of course, this would apply to all binders, not just binders that had not yet been re-prepared, so we would probably have to start from scratch all over again. When it comes to the working of the census bureau, fact is stranger than fiction, much stranger!

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