History & Policy submission to the Office for National Statistics consultation on the future of the Census
Simon Szreter |
- The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just closed a 4-month consultation period on the Future of the Census. Its proposals are contained in a document titled ‘The future of population and migration statistics in England and Wales’ (issued 29 June 2023).
- ONS are proposing to abolish the decennial census, most recently taken in 2021 (online for the first time). The proposal is to replace it with a ‘statistics system’ constructed by piecing together a wide range of databases currently collected by different government departments and commercial organisations. The key attraction, it is claimed, is that this can provide analysts with more cheaply and rapidly available statistical information than waiting for a census every ten years.
- History & Policy has provided a submission in response which expresses concern that the value of census data to historians and, indeed, to citizens in general is in danger of being overlooked. This is because the decennial census has two quite distinct functions in our democratic society. One is to provide statistical information for planners. But the second is as a regularly repeated national act of civic solidarity, which values every single individual equally in all their diversity. It is because the census has been doing this for 180 years that it provides all citizens with much-valued historic information on their family origins.
- The following is the text of the principal part of H&P’s submission to the consultation process.
History & Policy notes and regrets that there is no historian on the decision-making Board of the UK Statistics Authority which takes responsibility for deciding on the outcome of the consultation process on the future of the UK census. Most Board members are economists, statisticians or people drawn from the IT world. This is not surprising in a Board whose normal business is to oversee the current statistics machinery of the British state and its citizens.
However, if the Board is involved in a one-off decision which could result in the abandonment of the individual household census, which has been taken every 10 years since 1841, they would unquestionably be taking a decision with profound significance in the history of this country. So it seems to us important that the Board recognise in their deliberations (and preferably explicitly record that process of recognition) that the national census is so much more than a decennial information-gathering exercise for the benefit and use of statisticians, demographers, planners and data-analysts.
The decennial census is at least three more things of truly national cultural and societal significance. Firstly, it is a unique national civic ritual. It regularly provides an activity in which all individuals in the United Kingdom participate together in affirming their diverse identities and existence. Unlike royal events or even general elections, the census is as close to a truly universally-shared activity as we get in Britain.
Secondly, it provides the resource base for an enormously widespread and valued process of popular historical engagement, namely the capacity to research and discover family histories. The massive growth in paying subscribers to both Find My Past and Ancestry.com over the last 20 years in the digital age testifies to this. Only the census can guarantee to these amateur genealogists that their own posterity will be able to find them in the future. It could be a source of great unpopularity and a public relations own-goal for ONS or an elected government to be seen as responsible for abandoning future generations’ access to this treasured resource. This point about a public relations own-goal also gestures to the third aspect of the decennial census’s significance.
It is a bedrock for maintaining a state of healthy goodwill and trust between citizens and their government in the collection and management of personal and individual information. The census has a well-deserved reputation, not only for all-inclusive universality but also for reliability and strict confidentiality. By contrast, far too many digital databases, both in government and those in commercial hands, have suffered- and unfortunately continue to suffer – repeated data breaches and lapses. Despite their best efforts, it would be patent hubris on the part of ONS to proclaim that no such thing will happen with a future census based on a combination of many partial databases and many third parties as well as different departments of government.
The question for the UK Statistics Authority Board to consider is what would be the nature of the damage which will follow from such perfectly conceivable failures? Has there been a proper war-gaming exercise from ONS (and the Home Office perhaps) to understand the nature of these risks and to prepare for them in advance? What are the extra costs of the defences that have to be put in place to deal with such identifiable risks. The Board should at the very least require this information from ONS, rather than accept an implicit position that no serious risks will materialise.
These predictable problems can be correctly classified as ‘known unknowns’. Given that the system being proposed does inevitably suffer from such unknown risks, at this stage it would be much the wisest course to at least maintain the next conventional decennial census in its online form in 2031 as a backup. That would provide the most convincing evidence that both ONS and the Board has thoroughly thought through the problem of known unknowns and has put in place a satisfactory failsafe mechanism to deal with them.
ONS has already learned all the major lessons in putting on an online census, as that is what was done in 2021. It would be something of a waste to throw all that away immediately in the haste to move on to something entirely novel. The new system needs to undergo a substantial period of trial and error (there will be errors). When it has come through its teething problems and demonstrated that it can retain the public’s confidence - including that their posterity will not be sold short by the new system - then it may be much more acceptable – and, indeed, justified - to dispense with the decennial census.
Thus, History & Policy submits that, from an historical perspective, the decennial census has a two-fold value to the nation, one narrowly economic, the other broadly socio-cultural. If we look on the census solely as a tax-funded information source for a range of contemporary stakeholders then considerations of cost, accuracy and speed of access to information are obviously the main criteria for determining whether a decennial census is retained or replaced with other methods. But if we ask what does the decennial census mean to the voting citizens, their families and descendants in the UK, then the criteria for its continuation or its abolition look very much different.
There is clearly an enormous appetite – one might say an emotional need – throughout the population for the information it banks for posterity. Is that at all surprising? No. In the past dynasties wealthy enough to do so scrupulously kept records of their ancestors and their genealogies. The common people could not afford such luxuries and so vanished into anonymity a couple of generations after their deaths. Now that we are a democracy of equal civic rights, it is an intensely human and highly valued desire that all can exercise - to know their own familial past.
So the meta-question for the Statistics Board is whether only one of these two very different understandings of the meaning and function of the decennial census should take precedence If so, which one? Or are both sets of criteria of non-substitutable value and validity? Can means be found to improve the rapidity of the flow of accurate information needed by planners and commerce without sacrificing a much-loved and much-used national treasure?
For historians who understand the public significance of the decennial census in these cultural terms, to permit the economic and technological to trump the historic and cultural is a bit like doing away with Nelson’s column and Trafalgar Square and replacing them with a digital ‘Trafalgar Square experience’, on the grounds that this valuable real estate in central London is resource-using and has so many other more efficient alternative commercial uses.