How the future of the Census affects the future of business

The Coalition Government has proposed cutting the Census as a way of achieving its strict budget cuts. But Barry Leventhal of The Market Research Society argues that killing off the 200 year old Census could cause significant harm to the economy.

While the 2011 Census will go ahead as planned, there is currently some uncertainty over the level of data analysis that will be undertaken. And beyond 2011, the future of the Census is “under review”. There is no question over the need for reform and modernisation, however there are broader economic aspects that must be considered before a potentially damaging decision is made.

The important thing about the Census is that it enables billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to be targeted where it is needed most. Many public and commercial bodies require accurate population data to help them make key decisions. It is also vital for UK social research and comparative analysis, and is relied upon heavily by UK businesses to inform commercial decisions. So cutting back in order to make savings on the cost of the Census (£482 million, according to The Daily Telegraph) might increase costs elsewhere in the UK economy.

One thing that could be under threat as part of cuts in the analysis of the 2011 data, and removing the whole operation entirely, is the modelled “Social Grade analysis” – the system of classifying individuals as A, B, C1 etc, which is, by far, the most prevalent social classification system used by British business.

The disappearance of Social Grade modelling would disadvantage businesses in their research and product development and, although some of the data might be available from other sources, it is unlikely to be as robust and comprehensive as that of a national Census.

Local authorities and development agencies use the Census, including modelled Social Grade results, to profile their areas, as they know that the media and potential business investors will understand and relate to the Census and its Social Grade classification. Likewise the private sector, from supermarkets and financial services providers, to media and social networks, uses the grading to tailor their offer to specific market needs.

The Coalition Government has said it will commit to assisting UK businesses to drive growth in the UK economy, ensuring that we do not return to recession. But by depriving the economy of such an invaluable data tool, it could hinder UK business which relies on this data to identify and exploit commercial opportunities.

It is unlikely that there is another single source that allows researchers to conduct analyses in such a precise and efficient way. In other countries, including Sweden and Finland, the Census has been scaled back and combined with other data sets, such as benefit claims and ID card information. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) has taken note of this and for some years have been carrying out consultations regarding this approach. They have also carried out consultation with a number of the commercial sources including members of the MRS’ Census and Geodemographics Group about the merging of commercial and Census data.

This approach relies upon the substantial merger of personal data, whether it is held by government or commercial companies. It is unlikely to appeal to the British public in these times of greater emphasis on privacy or protecting personal data. High profile data loss incidents, such as the loss of 25 million records by HMRC in 2007, have led to the public’s distrust in the Government’s ability to look after our personal information.

Even if various non-Census sources are merged into a large database it does not eliminate the need for a Census. All such databases are incomplete and countries that adopt this approach typically carry out a scaled down Census to calibrate information gleaned from other sources.

Scaling down the Census may well save money now, but what are the long-term cost implications for Government, business and the taxpayer of commissioning additional research and data gathering?

The Beyond 2011 project, being carried out by the ONS, is developing a number of options for the production of key population statistics after the 2011 Census. Rapid changes in society and the availability of alternative data sources are leading to new requirements for population data. Users want a wider range of statistics to be available more frequently, to provide an accurate picture of population change. This is all needed to support effective decision-making.

The research sector fully accepts that there is a need to change and improve the way that the Census is undertaken. Providing value for money and a real return on the taxpayers’ investment has always been paramount.

But whatever conclusions are drawn by the Government, it is vital that these are made in consultation with stakeholders across central and local Government, the research sector , the third sector, media and UK business; to ensure the changes are considered and practical.

Let’s review what we have and improve it, make it more cost effective and above all relevant – both commercially and socially – in this new “Big Society”.

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