Stand Up and Be Counted
STAND UP AND BE COUNTED
By Professor Peter Elias, Institute for Employment Research
The deadline for the Census is the end of March, and for many of us getting the form in on time is a high priority. But why is having a Census every ten years so important? Is it a good use of public money? Do the benefits of the process outweigh the costs? Professor Peter Elias, ESRC Strategic Advisor at the Institute of Employment Research, answers these questions and explains the role of the National Data Strategy.
Why do we need a Census?
Every ten years, as the date for the Census of Population approaches, this question is raised. The census is variously labelled as wasteful, inaccurate, intrusive or just plain tedious by many people, including MPs and some academics. However, given that we do not maintain a population register, as is the case in all Scandinavian countries for example, this ten yearly stock take of our housing and population remains vital to the planning of public resource provision and has significant value to many private sector business interests. For researchers the census is much more than a simple headcount. Census data provide us with the raw material to create indicators such as the index of deprivation – a way of classifying areas at a detailed level according to the living conditions and economic status of local residents. Not many people are aware of the Census Longitudinal Study which will soon have a 40-year record of changes at the individual and household level for over one per cent of the population. Migration and commuting flows can be mapped in detail from census information and the Sample of Anonymised Records gives researchers the ability to measure and model behaviour at the individual and household levels.
But all of this comes at a cost. The census operation is the most expensive data collection task carried out by the Office for National Statistics for England and Wales and its counterparts, the General Register Office in Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Given that we have so many surveys nowadays, including the large Integrated Household Survey, why can’t we make do with these? Until recently the answer to this question would stress the need for a solid foundation for survey estimation – the process through which sample information can be used to infer population characteristics – and the lack of any alternative way of developing such a foundation. Two things have happened which mark the beginning of a major change in this respect. First, all national statistical legislation was repealed in 2007 and replaced with the Statistics and Registration Service Act. This provides a legal mechanism through which government departments and agencies can provide information to the Office for National Statistics. While such data sharing will be carefully controlled and monitored, it provides the much needed gateway through which departments such as Work and Pensions, Education and Transport can provide information about people to the ONS for statistical purposes. Second, a number of agencies reached an agreement in December of last year to maintain just one single address register for every home and business and public building in the UK. Thus, the foundations are being laid for a new type of ‘census’ in 2021, one which will combine information from maps, aerial photographs, local authority records and post office addresses with administrative data and (probably) a ‘census-style’ sample survey. While this will be complex to coordinate, the efficiency gains will be large and scope will exist for a more frequent monitoring of population and housing trends.
So what is the National Data Strategy?
Just after the last Census of Population in 2001 the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) commissioned a Data Audit – a review of all of the various types of data and related services which had potential to inform research in the social sciences. Prepared by its now Chief Executive and others, this audit stressed the need for a more coordinated, strategically-driven approach to investment in data for research in the social sciences. The report led to the sharing of responsibilities for this new approach by two individuals; Professor David Martin at the University of Southampton for census programme coordination and to the author for coordination with all other resources. With this long-term approach to planning and investment for data resources, the data infrastructure for the social sciences began to take shape. At the core of what is now referred to as the ‘National Data Strategy’ is the UK Data Forum, a voluntary grouping of the senior executives/officers from most government departments, research funding agencies, national statistical offices and local government. This forum acts to coordinate plans for the development of statistical infrastructure, including the funding of such activities. It commissions studies which seek to identify gaps in research resources and works actively to promote existing resources. It liaises closely with counterparts in other countries (e.g. the German Data Forum). Every three years it produces a new forward plan, aligning its work with other strategic plans and setting out what it hopes to achieve over the three year period.
Does it work?
There is no doubt that this new approach has been successful. As part of the National Data Strategy the ESRC has made three bids to the Large Facilities Capital Fund, previously only accessible to the physical, medical and national sciences. The £42m released from this fund has facilitated a new household panel study (Understanding Society), currently the largest household panel study in the world, the creation of the Secure Data Service – a new way of gaining access to sensitive and/or disclosive data without having to travel to a ‘safe-setting’ location and, last but not least, a new birth cohort study of 110,000 babies and their parents and a facility to help researchers gain access to and harmonise data from the earlier birth cohorts. While these three examples have the potential to place the UK in a world-leading position in key areas within the social sciences, the biggest gains come from the slow but planned progress we are making in other areas such as data linkage, using new forms of digital data for social research, integrating quantitative social science into the environmental agenda and the biomedical sciences, improving the scope of access to data on organisations and, of course, promoting the internationalisation of UK social science research. Furthermore, government co-funding of these investments is now becoming a very significant component of the sustainable future planned for these investments.
The census is one part of this landscape. It has an important part to play and will continue to form the ‘backbone’ of many statistical systems for years to come. The University of Warwick has significant involvement in the census not just as a research resource but in its very construction. The Institute for Employment Research has supplied the software for coding text descriptions of occupations and industries to the Scottish Census of Population and is closely monitoring how well it performs. So fill out those census forms – on paper or online – and help to maintain one of this country’s most important assets for statistical research.
Professor Peter Elias studied in the sciences before undertaking his doctoral studies in applied labour economics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a Professor at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, where he has worked across a wide variety of research areas over the last 30 years. These have ranged from the evaluation of large-scale government programmes, statistical monitoring of the status of particular groups in the labour market, the study of occupational change and the relationship between further and higher education, vocational training and labour market outcomes. Related to these research areas, he has developed methods for the measurement and analysis of labour market dynamics and has a keen interest in the classification of labour market activities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. From October 2004 he has acted as the Strategic Advisor for Data Resources to the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) , assisting the ESRC and other research funding councils and agencies with plans to develop data resources for research across the social sciences and at the boundaries between the social sciences and other disciplines.
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