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Peter Mouncey Blog

2011 Census: the end of the census as we know it?

22-11-2013
UK researchers: this is a call to action!

We’re now in the middle of ONS’ consultation on the options for the future of the UK Census.I’ve blogged on this before, but it is very important that the views of the market research sector are heard on an issue that is vitally important to us all. 

The first London consultation meeting was held in late September, and whilst I was unable to attend, I’ve seen the slides from that event.

The consultation is about identifying user’s preference for either a data-rich census every ten years, versus top-line data only, but published annually. The former option would be as in 2011, but with the methodological emphasis being on achieving completion online, with a back-up team to follow up non response; the latter option would be an admin data based alternative, with annual surveys.

What really stuck out to me was the slide that shows their estimated benefits by sector to date. Whilst the benefits calculation is, I’m told by Barry Leventhal (Chair MRS Census & Geodemographics Group), rather a rough-and-ready calculation and still very much a work in progress, out of the total benefits identified to date, the largest single category is ‘market research’. 

For the first option, MR accounts for no less than 26% (£209m) of the total of £797m; for the second option, whilst the proportion rises to 28%, it is of a much lower total, £557m. So, we have a big stake in ensuring that the final decision is one that protects our interests and the two options are forecast to deliver very different results.

The online based option obviously poses challenges in terms of likely completion rates and comparability with previous census results, but ONS do plan to use other methods to reach those without online access. 

At least the online option poses some known challenges, but there appear to be many unknowns that remain to be addressed in the admin based alternative, with data from sources such as the NHS Patient Register, DWP/HMRS Customer Information System, DfE School Census, despite the benefit of more up to date data from what would become a rolling database. 

How will data be integrated from the proposed government sources? Will an annual survey really fill the gaps and provide a calibration tool – for example, the promotion and high media coverage for the once a decade census creates a focus that will not be possible for a much smaller scale annual survey?

Also, what happens if changes are made to the admin sources (or further expenditure cuts axe one or more) - and can trends and any bias be detected over long time periods? 

A lot of potential unknowns here, requiring a lot more detailed planning and more details of the likely methodologies to achieve a robust solution.

Either option poses challenges in maintaining a rich flow of data, and comparability, so please:

  • Respond to this consultation (see my final paragraph for a link to do this)
  • Think of the long term – this is not a short term issue
  • Think carefully about the information you need from the Census and the risks either option might pose in delivering it. How much might you be prepared to compromise?
  • Think laterally about what might provide a better option. ONS may not have identified all the possible solutions.
The Government will make the final decision, but there needs to be a strong case made to ensure that the selected option is not simply chosen on cost grounds alone, ignoring the benefits case. 

The Census is a costly service to deliver, and will remain so regardless of which solution is selected, but we need to think of value for money, as with any research based solution.

Barry Leventhal discussed the options and issues in much more detail than I can here, but it was disappointing to see how few comments it attracted at the time.


Speakers at the recent MRS CDG conference held on 8 November underlined the need for census users to respond to this consultation. 

So, please get involved and make your views known. Your opinion counts! You have until 13th December to do so.

Any comments below, as ever, are highly valued.

Comments (1)

  • Mike Thompson | December 17, 2013 2:12 pm

    Using online methodology with the additional conventional media for non response should not pose any problems. As an aside, how refreshing it is to read of online as a possible methodology without any reference to access panels. It is also very revealing that when proper research is being discussed access panels do not get a look in. It would be a step forward if the MRS could be more consistent in support this position

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