LEAKED: The mess behind the scenes at Census 2011Posted on April 4, 2011
I wrote just over a week ago about the demographic futility of the 2011 Census, which once completed will go out of date at 5,600 people a day. On the back of that post, I’ve been leaked an intriguing account of the chaos behind the scenes by one of the census enforcers whose job it is to go from door to door persuading those who haven’t filled it in to do so. For anyone who believes in competent Government data management - or anyone who is a taxpayer – it does not make comfortable reading.
Here are a few extracts on a range of topics…
On the training we learnt all sorts of absolutely useless things none of which I have used. For instance I spent a lot of time learning what to do if a house is now a communal hostel or if there are more than 6 people living there. The basics of what you would do day to day in 99% of circumstances weren’t drummed into individuals. The training should have focused on key scenarios (household lost questionnaire and households asking if they have to do it). There were lots of stupid group exercises where we learnt things like take an umbrella because it might rain. Don’t forget to take your wallet because you might want to buy a chocolate bar when you are out. Take spare pens. Be polite. If you don’t know these things you shouldn’t work on the census.
Our original staff meeting was a bit of a disaster. All of our collectors were there for a number of hours. We sat around as our coordinator had to give out our work individually meaning that the other dozen of us just sat around doing nothing. This should have been done individually to save time. 15 people, at a rate of 7-10.42 an hour, for 3 hours is almost £500 at the top end (including the coordinator)…For a lot of us about 20% of your time is spent at these meetings every week.
If you consider that there are apparently 29,000 census collectors across the country, that bill for paying people simply to sit around swiftly adds up.
The Computer System
The computer system is a disaster. It crashes regularly. The printers are not designed for the amount of printing that needs to be done, meaning our coordinator needs to watch all the printing personally. Sheets spurt out of the machine and therefore end up in the wrong piles (which can be fixed but it takes time and mistakes are made). The system is very slow and constantly needs restarting. Sometimes it is down for hours.
There are different types of forms that I alluded to earlier so if a house is empty we fill in a ‘dummy form’. If we give them a replacement questionnaire it is a different one. The system does not cope well when you scan in one type and then scan a second type. You have to reset the system to say now you are going to input a dummy form or a replacement. Again solvable by scanning in all your replacement forms first and then dummy forms but it takes time and running through dozens of pieces of paper looking for the minor differences in barcodes that indicate which form is which means again mistakes.
A Government computer system that doesn’t work properly? I didn’t see that one coming…
Reading the papers I was aware of the Lockheed Martin connection and the possibility of boycotts. The guy running the training had never heard of this and didn’t know how to address questions about LM’s role. Ironically our coordinators have said an unexpected development has occurred that they hadn’t anticipated with people refusing to do the census because of this. Quite how they failed to anticipate this I don’t know.
We are supposed to say on the door that Lockheed Martin do lots of good things like supporting our troops in Afghanistan. I have little problem with their involvement in the census but it strikes me as a monumentally stupid response – the kind of people who are boycotting the census for this reason will only be strengthened in their view that it is immoral because people who refuse to do the census because of arms manufacturer being involved aren’t going to be placated by saying it helps the war in Afghanistan! It is a red rag to a bull.
Quite. Can you imagine what is going to happen if someone from the Stop the War coalition is boycotting the census because it’s being run by a defence company, and is told that they should fill it in precisely because that defence company is involved in Afghanistan? Regardless of your views on the war, it’s hardly a sign that there’s any forward thinking being applied to the Census at all.
My anonymous source concludes that:
Reading back through this I think you could make a case that this is all rather silly and that I should just stop making mistakes. The point is basically the standard of census collector isn’t particularly high . Lots of mistakes are made and when you are working in an outdoor environment often in the dark against the elements the system has not been designed to minimise risk and maximise efficiency.
This is the key point. The Census deals in two valuable commodities – personal data and taxpayers’ money. From this account, it doesn’t seem like either are in safe hands.