Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Census Says It Hired More Workers Than It Needed As a ‘Cost-Saving Measure’

Inspector General’s Memo: Census Says It Hired More Workers Than It Needed As a ‘Cost-Saving Measure’

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The U.S. Census purposefully hired more workers than it needed, telling the Office of the Inspector General of the Commerce Department that it did so as a “cost-saving measure,” according to a memorandum that Todd J. Zinser of the inspector general’s office sent to Census Bureau Director Robert Groves last week.

“According to Census,” said Zinser’s May 26 memo to Groves, “‘frontloading’ its workforce (i.e. hiring and training more enumerators than necessary to offset turnover) is a cost-saving measure.” The inspector general’s memo, however, suggested that in at least one Census Bureau operation excessive staff had increased the “cost of operations” and that in another operation deployment of an unnecessarily large number of workers "increased the operation’s direct labor and travel costs."

In the first quarter of this year (January-March), personnel from the inspector general’s office observed Census Bureau operations in four programs. These included “update/leave” (U/L), in which Census workers deliver questionnaires to homes that would not be reached by ordinary mail service; “update/enumerate” (U/E), which counts people in communities where the homes lack ordinary mailing addresses or street names; "enumeration at transitory locations" (ETL), which counts people at places where their residences are potentially mobile, such as recreational vehicle parks, campgrounds, marinas and carnivals; and “service-based enumeration” (SBE), which counts homeless people at places such as homeless shelters, mobile food vans and so-called “targeted non-sheltered outdoor locations” (TNSOL).

The inspector general’s memo said that the Census Bureau had “overestimated” the staff needed for the program to enumerate people at transitory locations. “During the ETL operation,” said the memo, “crew leaders overestimated the number of Census staff needed to enumerate transitory locations, thus increasing the cost of operations.”

The memo also said that there were so many people hired for the “service-based enumeration” that there turned out to be one Census enumerator for every seven homeless people counted, and that the inspector general’s office “observed significant periods of enumerator inactivity at certain locations.”

“In another operation [which the inspector general’s office confirmed to CNSNews.com was the SBE program],” said the memo, “we found many enumerator teams to be unnecessarily large—an average ratio of one enumerator for just seven homeless respondents. We observed significant periods of enumerator inactivity at certain locations, which increased the operation’s direct labor and travel costs.”

As a result of these problems, the inspector general suggested that the Census bureau should “reevaluate” frontloading—that is, the practice of hiring more enumerators than necessary to cover anticipated turnover. “Census should reevaluate its practice of frontloading and develop a better process to estimate workload and cost assumptions,” said the memo. “A more streamlined enumeration process could reduce training and travel costs and be more responsive to changing economic conditions.”

The inspector general’s quarterly report to Congress on the Census, published on May 5, also noted that there had been one Census enumerator for every seven homeless people counted at locations other than “targeted non-sheltered outdoor locations” in the SBE program. “We also found many enumerator teams to be unnecessarily large--an average ratio of one enumerator for just seven homeless respondents for non-TNSOL operations,” said the report. “As a result, we observed significant periods of inactivity at these locations, which unnecessarily increased the cost of the SBE operation.”

CNSNews.com asked the inspector general’s office if it had determined that the Census Bureau’s practice of hiring more workers than needed, the so-called “frontloading,” had indeed been a “cost-saving measure” as the bureau had contended and whether the program referred to as “another operation” in the quotation above was in fact the SBE program. The inspector general’s office confirmed via email that the program in question was indeed the SBE program, but said it had not done the analysis to determine whether or not the Census Bureau’s “frontloading” in hiring had saved money.

“Our office has not done the analysis to conclude that Census’s practice of ‘frontloading’ its workforce is or is not a cost-saving measure,” said the email from the inspector general’s office. “Our recommendations are based on our observations of the operations mentioned in the second paragraph of the memo—update/leave (U/L), update/enumerate (U/E), enumeration at transitory locations (ETL), and SBE.”

CNSNews.com asked the Census Bureau two questions about the inspector general's memo: Did the bureau contest the inspector general's conclusion that there was an average of one enumerator for each seven homeless people counted in the SBE program? Does the bureau still contend that "frontloading" its workforce by "hiring and training more enumerators than necessary in order to offset turnover" is in fact a cost-saving measure?

Michael C. Cook, public information officer for the 2010 Census, responded by email. "Experiences in 1990 and 2000 have demonstrated cost and time efficiencies associated with the early training of sufficient employees to replace those lost through attrition," he said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday that employment in the United States grew by 433,000 jobs in May, but that those jobs included 411,000 temporary workers hired by the Census Bureau.

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