Event report - Counting the population: the 2021 census and beyond

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

Following the National Statistician’s recommendation on how the 2021 census should be conducted after the conclusion of a national consultation, the RSS hosted a meeting to explore how the planning of the 2021 census over the coming years will come together.

The meeting was opened by RSS President John Pullinger, followed by a short introduction by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot. Ian Cope of the ONS then proceeded to map out the details of the plans to pursue a predominantly online census in 2021, supplemented by research into the further use of administrative and survey data.

Opening the meeting, John Pullinger welcomed everyone and began by reiterating how important the census is, which was illustrated by the wide variety of people attending the event. With that in mind he admitted he was worried about what would happen to the census at the beginning of the consultation. But his, and the RSS’s position, had been reflected in the ultimate decision that it is too early to drop the traditional census, but that there is huge potential in using administrative data.

Andrew Dilnot then took to the lectern where he reiterated the ‘astonishing significance’ of the census to the nation. As an illustration of this he cited suffragette Emily Davison’s actions on the night of the 1911 census. On that day she hid in a House of Commons broom cupboard, in order that her address was officially recorded as being the male only parliament building.

With the historical importance of the census in mind, he stated that it is possible to get close to 2011 census statistics with admin data, but there is not enough confidence that it would be a true enough estimate.

Ian Cope then began outlining the ONS plans for the coming years. He began by revising what took place in consultation period, with the ONS attending some 500 events and receiving more than 700 responses, with 444 from individuals and 273 from organisations.

He said the ONS had also accepted all the recommendations made by Professor Chris Skinner in an independent review of the methodology which was produced last November. Professor Skinner, who was appointed on the advice of the RSS, concluded that more work would be required on administrative data and surveys before there would be sufficiently high quality outputs for population statistics purposes.

He continued his discussion of planning for 2021, by explaining how the online census will be conducted and the expectation that 60%-65% of census returns will be online. Technology will looked at to enable the public to fill in the census on everything from desktops to smartphones. Lessons will also be learned from Canada, Australia and New Zealand who already collect significant proportions of census data through online methods.

He then went on to show estimates of how close admin data could get to 2011 census data coverage, and presented some public opinion research that showed a generally positive attitude towards the ONS using and storing admin data. However, key legislation will be needed to allow people, business and address register data linkage. It is also assumed that annual surveys will be required to supplement the admin data.

Ian also made the point that planning for the 2031 census is also underway as a part of the 2021 preparations. A ‘Beyond 2011 Research Conference 2014’ will also be held on May 20-21, where those interested are encouraged to attend to find out more about the future planning of the census.

The meeting was then opened up to questions from the audience. A common theme was how the recent mismanagement of data sharing exercises in personal health data can be avoided with the census. Andrew Dilnot made the point that using admin data in for this purpose is not a new concept, it’s just that technology has now enabled much more to be done.

He went on to say that a lack of understanding on data linkage is hampering the debate. John Pullinger echoed Andrew Dilnot’s analysis by calling for a much richer debate in the media of such issues. Ian Cope said although research on public attitudes to data sharing had been conducted, research on attitudes to compulsory surveys was yet to begin.

Other questions included queries on what confidence can there be that an online census could be satisfactorily conducted, given previous government IT project failures. Ian Cope made the point that the ONS work on the 2011 census in this regard was well received and the core team from this has been retained.

Another questioner brought up the example of his 89-year-old mother who may not be comfortable putting census information into a computer. Ian assured him that paper forms would still be available in these instances and where digital collection may still be problematic in 2021.

Video from the event is available to view below:

John Pullinger UK Statistics Authority Office for National Statistics (ONS) Andrew Dilnot Census

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