Devotion in the Hardest of Times

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

As a recent post noted, we have decided that the Census Bureau can take advantage of new management technologies, improve the supervision of interviewers, and reduce management costs by closing six of the twelve regional offices that have been a feature of the organization since 1961. We have initiated an 18 month transition to the new structure to minimize the disruption of the changes to our data collections. The jobs of the approximately 6500 field interviewers remain exactly the same. They will gradually move from reporting to multiple persons working out of one of 12 offices to reporting to a single local supervisor, working out of his/her home. About 300 office staff are affected by the decision.

I’ve just completed trips to visit the six regional offices that will be closed under our decision. These were difficult meetings for all involved. The affected staff were filled with completely reasonable questions: Why is this happening? What opportunities will I have in the future organization? What is the schedule of moving responsibilities from the closing offices? Why was our office closed and not another?

The meetings were a testament to the devotion and commitment of our staff to their jobs. They are proud of their hard work, their single-minded attention to high quality data, and their being a key part of the mission of the Census Bureau to provide accurate statistical information for the benefit of all Americans. They think of themselves as serving the public, and they put up with the bureaucracy of a large organization because of that public service goal. I came away with renewed admiration for them and thankful that there are such people in our country.

In my professional judgment the Census Bureau must find every way possible to become more efficient in all of its processes. The costs of measuring the American society and American business are increasing each year. Continuing to do the same thing means continuously declining productivity and higher costs. Americans are a busy lot and their day-to-day lives offer hardships and challenges. Our interviewers find themselves working more hours to accommodate the needs and concerns of the persons sampled into our surveys, so each interview obtained costs more money than in the past.

The needed efficiencies at the Census Bureau will come from streamlining work processes, enhancing the use of common IT systems, knocking down the bureaucratic silos that prevent sharing of information, and liberating all the staff to suggest improvements. Some of those steps must necessarily cause disruptions in the lives of our employees, but knowing that does not make it any easier for a staff member going through the experience. Unfortunately, I believe that if we avoid implementing such changes now, the only result will be later, more drastic, more painful changes imposed by external forces quickly and chaotically.

The vast majority of costs we have at the Census Bureau are salaries. Therefore, enhancing cost efficiency usually affects persons. When we can make changes in a coordinated way we can move existing staff to other internal vacancies, reducing the disruption. We are attempting to do that with the affected regional office staff.

During such moments the real character of an organization arises. The character I witnessed was moving to behold. One of the most poignant and telling questions that arose in most of the offices was “How can I help?” — this from staff who had just learned that their office was closing. These are remarkable public servants who deserve our utmost respect.

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One Response to Devotion in the Hardest of Times

  1. Mark David Menchik says:

    I applaud your seeking added efficiencies. I also hope that in a difficult period the Census Bureau can in time arrange to continue at least successors to the nation’s “Statistical Abstract,” “County and City Data Book,” and “State and Metropolitan Area Data Book.”
    I am spurred by Robert Samuelson’s recent column ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dont-kill-americas-databook/2011/08/21/gIQAGJwBVJ_story.html ) , your blog (thanks!), and some comments to it. But mostly I rely on my own experience with these publications, in both print and web form. I’ve used them as an analyst in both private and public sectors. I’ve relied on these publications to learn about topics where I had neither training nor experience. But I’ve also used these as a citizen, most recently to consider where to retire. However produced, few documents in my experience have been at once so accessible and transparent to non-specialists.
    When my wife and I considered moving after retirement, I put little faith in the various rankings of places to live—catchy as they are. Such summings up can’t be particularly transparent. Instead, I wanted to know for myself the climate, the composition of population and employment, crime levels, and other clear-cut information listed. I believe that, with increasing education, more citizens will use these publications.
    I think many observers underestimate the effort and professionalism needed for “compiling and managing” (the words on a Census web page) a variety of data sources to make them accessible to non-specialists. The results show the benefit of this professionalism.
    Perhaps I can suggest further efficiencies. A pause in production might allow another look at these publications, maybe one at a time. Which whole topical segments in each publication are the most useful? In compiling and managing one topic or another, which topics allow the staff to work most efficiently?
    I wish you and your staff well in trying times.

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