It’s being mooted that the Census might face the chop. The reasons? It’s expensive, the data is not collected regularly enough, and there could be enough other sources of information available.
All crap reasons, of course.
Next year’s Census is likely to cost in the region of £482m per year. Since this is once every 10 years, that’s less than £50m per year (much less, for example, than the government plans to save approximately per year from abandoning National ID cards, at £55m per year). Furthermore, public spending in 2009/10 was £661billion. Thus, as a proportion of that financial year’s spend, for one year alone, the Census would equate to 0.07% of public expenditure.
The data is only collected once every decade and is then available approximately one year after it’s collected. This is probably the most significant flaw in the Census. But the data is collected every decade partly because it’s perceived as expensive to collect. Thus, we enter Kafka-esque arguments in which one of the reasons for abandoning the Census (infrequency) is caused by the other (perception of cost).
The solution to the Kafka-esque arguments is to make the most of the information that exists elsewhere. So far, the government has suggested using data from the Post Office, local government, and credit checking agencies.
Where to start on this? The Post Office doesn’t know that Mrs Marumbi hasn’t lived at my address for the last 4 years at least, despite me telling them on over 25 separate occasions. In my significant dealings with local government, they just about keep their head above water in terms of knowing what data they have, both on people and on processes. Their equality monitoring forms are different for different teams within the same directorate, let alone across the whole organisation. And there is significant variation between local authorities and the expertise of the officers they employ to collect this information. And as for credit checking agencies, there is both a practical and a moral question to be answered for such organisations doing the government’s bidding on something so fundamental as understanding its citizens. (Not that the government seems to have moral issues on the inappropriate use of organisations to do or fund its work.)
And for each of the above, there are the questions of (1) expertise, especially relating to statistical collection and analysis, which I would suggest none of the suggested agencies has, (2) consistency, which would be incredibly hard to achieve, and (3) what the agencies involved are likely to charge the government for providing the information, and who owns the information.
In place of this, I’d offer the following defence of the Census:
- The Census is the first place many people go to find information.
- The Census is a trusted brand that people understand and are familiar with.
- The Census has a long, historical pedigree.
- The Census is administered and analysed by statistical experts.
- The Census provides reliable data and information that underpins significant components of public policy and spending.
I honestly don’t understand why the government is looking to stop the Census. On almost every measure it makes no sense.
(I’m hoping Phil and George both pick up this post and respond – I’m sure they’ll have lots to contribute to it as people who actually know what they’re talking about.)