Keeping the census relevant in a changing world

In an era when ‘national treasures’ come and go, it’s rare to find something that’s earned the public’s trust and affection generation after generation. But every 10 years, residents in England and Wales take the time to participate in the census.  Ian Cope explains how we’re already planning for 2021.

It matters, too. Data from the census is used to inform government decision making and underpins the allocation of billions of pounds in funding for public services. It’s also a vital source of information for researchers and genealogists.

The next census in 2021 will continue a proud history that stretches back over 200 years. I’m excited to be the guardian of this national asset.

To make sure the census stays relevant and gives an accurate picture of life in a fast-changing world, we’ll be making some changes ahead of 2021.

The 2011 Census was the first to give people the chance to fill in the questionnaire online – and 16.4% of respondents (nearly 4 million households) did so. Usage of online services has continued to increase since then and the 2021 Census will be predominantly online.

We’re hoping that 75% of census responses will be online. That said, we’ll be taking care to make sure everyone responding to the census is well supported, whether they’re doing so online or not.

“It’s important we get the balance right. We need to give users the information they need whilst ensuring that we maintain response rates.”

To make sure we get the online census right, we’ve been working closely with Office for National Statistics (ONS) IT colleagues and with the Government Digital Service (GDS). It’s been great to be able to tap into the GDS’ huge experience of running successful online services.

Secondly, we’ve been reviewing the topics we include in the census to make sure they meet the changing needs of those who rely on our data. As a starting point, we consulted the public on topics that the 2021 Census should cover, receiving more than 1,000 responses from organisations and individuals.

Since then, we’ve been busy considering, designing and testing some new questions based on some of the topics that were raised in the consultation. There’s a demand for a new question on sexual identity, which we’re currently testing, and we’ve also been looking into developing the question on ethnicity.

It’s important we get the balance right. We need to give users the information they need whilst ensuring that we maintain response rates. The questionnaire also needs to be quick and easy to fill in.

We’re running a test this spring to try out some of the questions we’re considering for the next census (as well as systems and services).

The 2017 Test will involve 100,000 households across 7 local authorities as well as randomly-selected addresses across the rest of England and Wales. It’ll give us the chance to learn and make improvements before census day.

If you’d like to know more about what we’re doing to get ready for the 2021 Census, please visit the ONS website.

We’re also looking beyond 2021 to the possibility of a putting together a census based on linking together administrative data held by the government. By doing this, we can make the best use of data that’s already available.

If our tests of administrative data are successful, we’ll be able to produce census-type statistics much more often – potentially every year. This will mean they’re more relevant and timely to those who need them. We wouldn’t need to ask the public to fill in a census questionnaire, either.

You can see some of the outputs of the research we’ve done so far on our website and on SlideShare.

We take the security of all the data we handle very seriously – and our administrative data research is no exception. You can read more about the ‘5 Safes’ principles we follow at ONS here.


Ian Cope
2021 Census