Saturday, June 26, 2010

Census 1

          It was my intention to write from my temporary job this year as a census enumerator from the very beginning. Somehow, I never got any of it written down while it was still fresh in my mind. I'll try to do this narratively, and hopefully that will jog my memory about the procedural and theoretical curiosities. Much like the times I've worked for the Board of Elections, my intention is to emphasize the virtues of bureaucracy, or rather, how a well-organized system of the mostly-ignorant can both generate accurate information and protect individual rights.
          I'm aware that many commentaries are beyond critical of blunders, evils and abuses. Many of these are typical small-scale workplace cynicisms or highlight the gap between planning and execution. I consider both criticism and the things criticised symptoms of a working social measurement machine. On the whole, census employees themselves are cynical and practical if they're not overly eager. I am most critical of the amount that my positive spin is an outcome of training myself to persuade people to respond. It also seems to me that the public news about this has been superficial, uninformative, and passive aggressive, so I also see this as an opportunity to discuss attitudes at a personal level.
          About a month into the job, employees were sent a notice about what they reveal in social media, emphasizing that they must be clear that their opinions are not those of the Census Bureau. Also, of course, reminding them of their confidentiality oath, which I'll get to. I'm not sure whether particular incidents resulted in the reminder. I did tweet briefly while in training with another trainee in Louisiana, and I heard enough to know that the relative sanity and ease of my local operation was the exception to the rule.
          I took the test last summer (quite proudly one of the first to finish it), and got a call a few weeks later saying my score was in the 98th percentile. Good, but easily beaten by anyone with the 5% extra given to veterans. They called me at least twice again asking if I were still available. My response was always yes, but not until the third call did they offer an actual job. Contrary to the expectations I had that the census would require far more office than field work, it is during May's NRFU (Non-Response Follow-Up, pronounced "narfoo" - oh how the government loves its acronyms), a.k.a. door to door interviewing, that the bureau's payroll bloats by a factor of about 4. (I got this information from a news report I now can't find, my deepest apologies.)
          Interestingly, coverage of the census has focused more on the jobs it created and money they government spends on it than on what it actually is. It's interesting to note that, partially because I had scheduled a ten day trip to Germany at the peak of NRFU, I've only made twice as much actually working as I did during the 40 hour training week.

          Only in retrospect, knowing that, do I consider that training week to be rather too long. It seems they hired as many to be trained as possible, expecting to eliminate many of the trainees, and the hiring bloated so much that it was nearly impossible for instructors, themselves only trained the previous week, to even communicate enough with the next level up to get materials and organize field work. It was at this point that I referred to the organizational structure as being nothing like the already-redundant root system of clerks and supervisors provided in our handbooks, but like a katamari ball. Extension of this analogy becomes ridiculous.

          The training location wasn't set until fairly late, and I think our instructor may have been the last to know. Training was in a cram school in Flushing, a 30-minute bus or subway ride from the neighborhood we all lived in and would work in, and the transportation costs were paid. The sardonic instructor, crew leader for half the class, set the attitudes of the more socially attentive of the group. The different supervisor for my area was even more down-to earth. For a highly social job there seemed to be a high percentage of the less socially attentive, so much so that I felt gregarious in comparison. It is, after all, a job for those shaken loose from other jobs, and did not require an interview. I gained about 10 pounds that week thanks to Flushing's pan-Asian deliciousness.
          One major joke that came up was the fact that the government thought to issue us all ballpoint pens for those carbon-paper forms that required them, but blue ones. The fingerprinting required of all Federal employees required black pen. Hilarity, we all carefully agreed. Fingerprinting is regarded as a fine art involving careful choreography. Because the only people available to do the fingerprinting had had a single day of training the previous week, a lot of the fingerprinting had to be redone in the office later in the week with a touch-sensitive machine. Whether the amount of extra time paid to trainees amounted to enough to have bought enough of these machines for all the classes, I don't know. It only occurred to me later that it was especially important to fingerprint census enumerators because the temptation to do a little breaking and entering is strong. It's the momentum of the thing.

          We swore the Oath on the first day. We put our hands over our hearts and swore... jeez, I'll have to look this up. I'm not being paid to write about this, and I made sure to check that I was allowed to leak instructions to enumerators and such (all very boring). The central tenet was that we could not use any of the personal information we gathered for any purpose other than the census. I understand it may still be hard to trust someone based on their taking an oath (I left the "so help me God" part out, even), but there's a quarter million fine threat behind that oath, plus jail time. And again, I'm aware incentives are better than threats - more than aware, after my door-to-door experiences - but we all both took that pledge seriously and thought it a goofy cinch. More on that later.

          Although it at first seemed tedious to go through the many practice questionnaires covering different ways we'd have to fill out the form, the only one I never had to use was the instance of an address that was a vanished trailer on a yard. Even then, I had to do many "deletes" for joined, mislabeled, or under construction homes. I don't know what it is about any classroom situation that turns everyone into a surly teenager uneasy about how they appear to other students, but the reluctance to actually pretend to be performing interviews was stupid. After filling in time with practice, paperwork, and a test one of whose official answers was wrong, we did go "into the field", and discovered that most of it was the repeated writing of Notice of Visit forms. A scourge, as it must be noted as a personal visit, of which we were only allowed three.

Technically we were all supposed to start the day after training, but the mid-managing level understandably delayed that at least two days. Trainees in areas requiring even more enumerators were just left in not-enough-supervisors limbo for a while.

I would like to emphasize that I consider this kind of obvious human frailty combined with persistence of the structure - everyone knew where they were supposed to be getting what, and didn't just go rogue with their badges counting whoever they thought needed counting out of zealousy or institutional mistrust. Discussing problems wasn't penalized, but making problems official was mostly understood to be counterproductive. As an apparatchik, I simultaneously understood myself to be paper's tool, and also knew that paper needed me to be smart and responsible and make empathetic and logical decisions. It's the lack of imagination, the discussion of alternatives without initiative, that keeps the information gathered consistent, and the information-making apparatus predictable. Predictability is not only critical when we see this as demographic science, but also maintains the trust of the people being measured. The census is an extensive self-check whose only goal is thoroughness, above all else.

The next installment will go more into ideology. Is there anything you want to know? Please ask! Also, I'd like to republish this series, or a summary, if you have a blog where I can guest post.


suits said...

Because your focus is accuracy and safety of our privacy, I am interested in details regarding the NRFU practice of asking individuals for census information regarding their neighbors. I am interested how this relates to Section 221, of Title 13 of the US Code (which I am sure you have memorized). Here is a link, in the green box asking "Do I have to talk to the census taker?"

Janet said...

Right. Mandatory response is essentially a blue law. When I said that it's better to accept statistical fuzziness than prosecute for non response like total fucking nazis, I was really just being a bit more pessimistic than the census about the persuasiveness of enumerators. Still, and this is something I'm saving for the next installment, we were sent back after refusals, and if it's possible someone knows anything on the form, all that can be done to get that is done. I sometimes lapsed into actually saying it was prosecutable, which was taken as a threat, and I regret when I did that.