After the ups and downs of the past 12 months or so, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that in March last year everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland completed the census. Now the first results for England and Wales are set to be published by the Office for National Statistics.
The first modern UK census in a form comparable to today took place in 1841, but that hasn’t helped this particular version avoid controversy, with some criticism of the methodology used and inevitably its cost. However, it should be obvious that getting meaningful results that truly reflect the whole population requires appropriate investment, and the data released on 28 June will reveal the most comprehensive details of the population’s gender, age and geographic make up. Plus, for the first time, there will be new insight into other areas – reflecting the country today – including respondents’ sexual orientation, gender identity and whether they have served in the armed forces.
For us as communicators, it’s a vital tool for understanding who we are speaking to and how the UK has evolved. Crucially though, this information will guide policy and funding decisions over the next decade with far-reaching impacts for communities and businesses – from the amount of money given to local authorities and health bodies, to plans for future housing, transport and education. It tells the government which areas need new schools and which require train stations, as well as shining a light on the equality of opportunities for different groups.
Over the next ten years, all of the market research that we use to shape our insight into audiences, to plan communications programmes and community outreach, will take its cue from the census. It will provide the basis for consumer studies, ensuring that samples are appropriately weighted and categorised.
Yet there remains uncertainty over its future. Critics, in particular, cite its expense, which may well reach £1 billion for this latest census, and the UK’s national statistician Sir Ian Diamond has recently been asked to look at alternative ways of collecting the data.
Those in favour of the current model – and there are many of them – need to robustly and publicly make the case for its validity and currency in a modern world. They need to highlight that it is changing with the times; this was the first digital census, reflecting the rise in people with access to the internet over the last decade.
As well as this, the fact remains that an equally thorough approach has yet to be put forward, and certainly not one that offers the same richness of data, while protecting the public’s privacy – census findings are completely anonymised. For all of the UK, including us communicators, its unmatched scope, consistency and reliability give it an edge over other sources of data on the makeup of modern Britain.
Matthew Evans is an Account Manager at Camargue