What the United States Census Taught Me About Party Dynamics

What do you get when you cross a decennial government project, a wide variety of individuals from across the county, various bits of technology, and some oversize and dubiously written training materials, and stir them together for about two weeks? If I’m to judge anything by my training in the United States Census, you get a cross between a devoted team and a subculture. Two weeks in, my training group was acting like we’d known each other all our lives. Which made me wonder: why didn’t my players do that? And that got me thinking about why the United States Census was able to create such a tight-woven team. Here’s what I’ve figured out.

The biggest thing the United States Census has is its common goal: get everyone in the country, regardless of status, legality, or much of any other factors, counted. Even in the preliminary wave, people hired just to make sure the address list is accurate (including every last cave, bridge and houseboat), the purpose is clear, and we’re all working in the same direction. That’s a good start for camaraderie right there; everyone has the goal in common. Moreover, there’s no element of direct individual competition, one of the biggest group-breakers I’ve seen. And while they gave us room for personal style, the overall means of pursuing this goal were clearly spelled out by an outside authority; no splitting the group over style arguments.

The odds are against groups of people already knowing each other. This is partly because they want us as spread out as possible so we can cover a greater amount of terrain, and partly because it makes assigning jobs a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about which of two people gets to canvass the area in which they live. (I’ve seen at least two couples split into two different projects for this reason.) This means the odds are against pre-existing cliques, which helps—while everyone knowing everyone already makes for the greatest group unity, nobody knowing anybody is the second-best option, as it means everyone’s on the same footing social-connection-wise. So no pre-established favorites.

Speaking of everyone on the same footing, listers for the United States Census tend to be at about the same level of knowledge when brought into training—and that level is “struggling”. If you’re in anything like my position, you’ve never used a handheld before, your crew leader only got out of training a week or two before, and even the veterans from prior decades have no idea what this handheld thing is or how it works. This is more “we’re all in the same boat”, and everyone can help everyone one way or another; the tech-savvy young adult who absorbs handheld procedure can trade insights with the old-timer who knows how the address works but isn’t quite sure how the tech operates, and both of them can probably learn something about this iteration’s Word From On High from the crew leader.

But the most unifying force in the entire Census has got to be the manual, or rather the three manuals from which they teach us. On the one hand, the manual is the manifestation of All That Is Bureaucratic About This Job; it’s big and thick enough to be used as a weapon in its own right, filled with step-by-step instructions right down to “Press OK when the “You have finished this address” window appears”, written in such a way that a five-year-old child would probably be able to understand it if using it didn’t require flipping between chapters on a regular basis, and treated as the be all and end all of standard operating procedure. This makes it not only a common enemy, but an exceedingly snarkable common enemy; you put any two Census employees in training in a room together, they will commiserate about and poke fun at the manual. On the other hand, it provides us both with technical jargon and with complaints that practically become catchphrases. Role-playing gamers may have the Dread Gazebo, but my training group had the Dread Marina, a monster that despite not even appearing in our assignment area showed up with a frequency that would make most recurring villains call it clingy. This creates a culture in its own right, with its own dialect and its own traditions, and culture is very strong unifying force.

Finishing it all off are those few times we actually got to work together. The standard Census employee is a solitary creature, canvassing the empty streets with only her handheld for company. But in field training, small groups go out to list a block, identifying potential problems and generally chatting with each other during the walk from one house to the next, and everyone gets together afterwards to discuss the problems and the amusing incidents. Some things are as innocuous as badly labeled duplexes, and getting to mark a place Does Not Exist because it’s in another block. Others are actually threatening, like a group being threatened by a guy with a hose in the next block. Still others make for funny lines, like the hose-guy’s inaccurate nicknames for the field trainees or the hazard of finding “a granny flat. With an actual granny” and being delayed.

So if you want a group to work together with little reason, consider the United States Census. Give them a goal that they’d have a stake in, and exact but wiggle-room-friendly parameters for how to do it. Make sure that either everyone knows everyone, or nobody knows anybody. Make sure nobody’s got any advance knowledge. And give them a mockable common enemy and a chance to make a dialect all their own. What do you think?

(Disclaimer: This post was not sponsored by the 2010 United States Census. Census participation in this post was mostly limited to providing the people, the opportunity, and the long slightly slow training sessions in which to get crazy ideas like this while letting the mind wander.)

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