The statement coincides with the publication of an independent review by a team led by London School of Economics statistics professor Chris Skinner. The review examines the two approaches currently being proposed for the next census:
1. To take a radically new approach to the census and generate the information from administrative data held by government.
2. To carry on with a decennial census, but do more of it online.
The Skinner review finds that while the first approach has considerable potential, it would fall a long way short of what would be needed to make it a reality, and concludes that the second approach ‘would work’.
The RSS, which nominated Professor Skinner to lead the review, believes that a ‘much bolder approach’ is required from the ONS: ‘Surely we can do better than this when so many organisations are using data in real time to improve performance,’ it continues.
The RSS recognises the need for a new approach and makes a series of recommendations, such as putting in place a robust address register, accessible to the ONS and others. It also suggests drafting relevant legislation to enable linking of admin data, and that the ONS start producing experimental numbers on an alternative approach to see how they measure up in practice.
Until these actions are in place and a well-tested alternative is found, the RSS considers it ‘reckless’ to scrap the decennial census, but recognises the need for a new approach.
Concluding the statement, RSS president John Pullinger commented: ‘We take it for granted that someone knows how many people live in each locality and what services they rely on so that we get the schools, hospitals and roads we need in the right places at the right time. That someone is the Office for National Statistics. Many businesses are using data in new creative ways to improve their decisions. The debate on the future of the census provides an opportunity for ONS to do the same for the public. They should grasp it.'
The RSS statement has gained coverage by the Financial Times in an article by Kate Allen and Norma Cohen (content behind paywall).