A difficult consensus: the Vineyarders and the bureaucrats

A difficult consensus: the Vineyarders and the bureaucrats

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“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

The census is very serious business. The results of the 10-year census may change states’ representation in Congress and affect state and federal funding for schools, highways, police, hospitals, and more.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the census will not be mailed. Every home will be visited by a census taker. Perhaps this is because so many homes are seasonal, and the owners reside, for the purposes of the census, somewhere else. Perhaps it is because so many Islanders have their mail delivered to their houses from a different town’s post office, which might create confusion. Or perhaps it is just that as a group we are an ornery lot and can’t be trusted with government forms.

As a result, the Census Bureau has already hired many Vineyarders and continues to recruit here. It would seem a natural fit. Seasonal workers in the off-season, the unemployed, students, and retired persons all could use some extra cash in the struggling 2010 economy. However, all is not well with the Census Bureau on Martha’s Vineyard.

Several Vineyarders have told The Times that they began the training but dropped out. Many others are sticking with it, but complain about the bureaucratic mindset of the training. It is unanimous in The Times’ small sample that the training is boring. Trainers read aloud from the manual for long stretches, and some trainees have reported that their trainers read in a monotone without emphasis to indicate that they understand the sentences they are reading.

Fingerprinting a class of trainees is maddeningly slow, as long as three hours, perhaps because the trainers are not used to taking fingerprints. In several cases fingerprinting needed to be repeated.

One West Tisbury trainee got a call from Hyannis that one of her ten fingerprints was smudged and she would need to have it done over. To a bureaucrat, the fact that nine prints would positively identify her was irrelevant. Bureaucrats require uniformity. She was instructed to go to Hyannis by 9 pm that night. She objected that she couldn’t get there. She was told she had to go to Hyannis by noon the next day. She objected that she would have a large expense to correct an error by her trainers. Eventually, she was allowed to go to the West Tisbury police station. “There, they know how to take fingerprints,” she told The Times. Others have told her similar stories.

Census takers are supposed to collect data in their neighborhoods, but one Oak Bluffs dropout reported that he was assigned to a neighborhood in Chilmark he had never visited.

Trainees are paid for the hours they are trained. Each day, they have to fill out an entire time card, including all the identifying information entered the day before. The cards have to be filled out in blue pen supplied by the trainers, not in black pen and not in pencil. The writing must be in a standard form. The capital letter I has to have a horizontal line at the top and bottom, but a capital J must not have a horizontal line. The numeral 7 may not have a European-style crosshatch. A time card with an error must be discarded and redone. At the first session, some trainees have to fill out a time card three times before they get it right. The process is a quintessential example of following instructions “to the letter.”

Perhaps what was being taught was not how to fill out a time card, but obedience. For the census to be valid, everyone must be asked the same questions in the same way, and the data must be recorded accurately. Absolute consistency, no matter how foolish it seems, is the goal.

Barry Applebaum, local manager of the Hyannis Office, spoke with The Times in a telephone interview last week. He denied that the trainers use time cards to teach obedience, but conceded that the US Census Bureau is “adamant” about consistency.

The Census Bureau uses what Mr. Applebaum called “verbatim training.” This means that every census worker must be trained in exactly the same way in exactly the same words. The process, which Mr. Applebaum described as a “cascade,” begins with assistant managers, who train field supervisors, who train the crew leaders, who train the folks who knock on doors. At every step of the way, the training is supposed to be repeated verbatim. Scientifically sound, but it’s no wonder that it gets a little stale.

One man’s story

Jean Marc Dupon, a census-taker dropout, found the whole process frustrating at first, then irritating, and eventually comical. “They have no idea what they’re doing,” he chuckled to The Times. He reported that recruiters don’t communicate with the trainers, and the trainers don’t communicate with other trainers or the regional office in Hyannis.

The US Census Bureau’s national web site says, “Training can be held either during daytime hours or during evening and weekend hours.” Although the recruiter had said that Mr. Dupon could be trained at night (he has a day job), he was assigned a day session. When he called to correct this missed communication, a Hyannis operator told him, “We don’t do night training.” When he tried to tell her that the recruiter had had a different story, she only repeated, “We don’t do night training.” Tiring of his objections, she pronounced, “The census is very serious business,” and hung up.

Several phone calls later, his second training assignment was at night . . . on Nantucket. The Nantucket trainer called him to say she knew he wouldn’t be coming, but she had no way to change the assignment or contact trainers on the Vineyard. She gave him the number, by now familiar, in Hyannis.

Mr. Applebaum said that people make mistakes. He conceded that the Hyannis office was probably in error. The census is an enormous undertaking, a multi-million-dollar industry which must start up from almost zero every ten years. It employs 1.3 million people. Many census employees, from local office managers on down, have themselves no experience with the census. It is not surprising that there are occasional glitches.

Eventually Mr. Dupon was assigned a training session in Edgartown for five weekday evenings, 4 to 9 pm.

The Monday session began badly when the trainers had not enough kits (which contained the materials, two regulation blue pens, and two pencils) for the eight trainees, and the supervisor called to say she was delayed in Chilmark and wouldn’t be there until 5 pm with extra kits. After a pep talk (“The census is very serious business”), the trainers swore in the recruits and then went over the schedule. To Mr. Dupon’s alarm, it turned out there was also to be a training session most of the day on Saturday, which he couldn’t attend. None of the other seven trainees had been told about that either. The final straw was that, although the recruiter had told Mr.Dupon he could work ten hours a week, the trainers said the minimum work load would be twenty hours. Other trainees were startled by this news as well, but the answer was, “The census is very serious business.”

When the supervisor arrived, Mr. Dupon told her that he was going to quit. “I told her, ‘No hard feelings—it just isn’t working out,’” he said.

“You can’t leave,” she said. “You’ve been sworn in, you have to be paid.”

Mr. Dupon told her that he didn’t need to be paid, but she insisted. “You have to stay and fill out a time card.”

Two hours later, Mr. Dupon was able to leave. But not before he witnessed more bureaucratic drama. One woman was filling out her time card with a black pen.

“Stop!” commanded the supervisor. “You must use the blue pen. Where’s your blue pen?”

“This was what was in the bag you gave us,” the woman answered. And her bag now contained another black pen and two pencils.

“You have to do it over. Where’s the shredder bag? We have to shred this one!”

The supervisor then noticed that another woman was filling out a time card with a Bic pen, blue but not standard census equipment. She snatched the pen from the offender’s hand. “Where did you get this?” she demanded.

“It was in the bag,” the offender sighed. Another job for the shredder.

Despite the hours wasted in phone calls and the lost Monday evening, Mr. Dupon’s frustration and anger by now had turned to laughter. He told The Times that when he recounted the evenings events to his girlfriend, they could not stop laughing until well into the night.

It is quite true that the census is very serious business, but any phrase repeated often enough becomes ironic. You may recall, “Brutus is an honorable man,” in Marc Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral. Mr. Dupon heard the mantra “The census is very serious business” so many times that it began to sound like the punch line of a family joke.