Census 2021 outputs: content design and release phase proposals

Closes 5 Oct 2021

Section 1: Why we are consulting

Purpose of the census

All kinds of organisations, from local authorities to charities, use census information. The England and Wales data we collect are used both independently, and alongside Northern Ireland and Scotland data, to produce UK-level data. To ensure that users derive the most value from the data, it’s important that we continue to understand their needs to inform our outputs.

There are two main types of uses for Census 2021 data: describing the population on Census Day and informing the decisions of the future.

Describing the population on Census Day

Census 2021 data will be fundamental to understanding the impact the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had on different communities. For example, information from the 2011 Census has already been crucial in our understanding of mortality for different groups during the pandemic. 

It’s also currently the only source of local-level information on topics such as occupation and household composition. With fresh data from 2021, we can update past analysis and use it alongside new data sources to give us the richest data on our population we’ve ever had.

Informing the decisions of the future

Currently, we rely on the census to provide the most accurate source of population data, both nationally and in small areas, in the years between censuses. It informs planning decisions on public services, including hospitals, schools, universities, and job centres, to meet the needs of our changing society. It will also form the basis of many of our other statistics that will follow in the subsequent decade.

Consultation context

We aim to increase the use of census data. This is as described in the White paper the government presented to Parliament in December 2018, Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales. This aim is in line with the UK Statistics Authority Strategy Statistics for the public good and the National Data Strategy.

To help achieve this aim, we will produce a range of census output products, enabling users to interact with census data themselves. Examples of these interactive products include the ability for users to build their own tables using flexible datasets or explore area profiles. However, we want to ensure these products contain the data that users need.

Throughout the development of the census, we have engaged with users to help us to understand their changing needs. This consultation is part of that continual engagement process, focusing on designing our different data products to meet users’ needs.

It follows and builds on the work of the Inclusive Data Taskforce. Earlier this year, it ran the UK Statistics Authority Inclusive Data Collection consultation to understand how inclusive data and evidence are across the UK.

As a result of this continual engagement, we’re confident that we’ve collected high-quality data to meet users’ needs. However, events such as the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have increased the rate of change in many of our personal circumstances. For example, for many of us, where and how we live, study and work are now quite different to the beginning of 2020. These circumstances are likely to change again.

To inform national and local service planning, we will need to update Census 2021 data using other sources to measure these and other changes. For example, this might include information on commuting patterns.

We’ve already begun planning for additional work to meet needs that we’ve identified through our established stakeholder engagement processes. This stakeholder engagement includes Census Advisory Groups and liaison with other government departments.

Aim and structure of this consultation

Consultation aim

Through this consultation, we aim to get an updated view of detailed user needs for data and analysis from Census 2021. This is especially important around topic areas experiencing an increased rate of change. By understanding user needs, we can ensure that we produce outputs that users can interact with and that help answer the most important questions facing society today.

We welcome contributions from all census users. This includes those who are experienced users of census data through to those who are looking to use census data for the first time.

We’re asking for feedback on our proposals about what census data to produce, which we’ve outlined throughout this consultation. These proposals cover the full census outputs and analysis release schedule and a range of different outputs products. We’ve included specific questions on our proposals for dataset specifications, analysis products and feasibility work on new variables.

We will evaluate the information you provide in response to this consultation, alongside information we collected during other stakeholder engagement activities. This will inform decisions on the final design of Census 2021 outputs for England and Wales. When making these decisions, we will consider how the publication of data will serve the public good. We will also consider operational factors such as data quality and disclosure of personal information risk.

Consultation structure

In each section of this consultation document, we provide our current thinking. We’ve highlighted areas where we’re particularly seeking user views using statements in bold that start “We’d like to know”. Within the questionnaire, we’ve provided detailed questions designed to help users give a response to each of these statements.

We’ve structured the questionnaire into sections, in the same way as this document. As a result, if you only wish to consult on certain aspects of the proposals, you can easily find the corresponding sections of the questionnaire.

In summary, the consultative sections and main questions comprise the following topics:

Section 2 - Shape of the outputs and analysis release schedule
This asks about the approach to providing guidance on revised geographical boundaries. It also asks for feedback on the recommended ordering of data releases, and the analytical outputs that we will produce.

Section 3 - Main changes to variables compared to the 2011 Census
This asks about plans for producing statistics and analysis using responses to the new questions on sexual orientation, gender identity, armed forces veterans and proxy response. It also asks about ethnic group, age and country of birth classifications and plans for using data from new response options in Census 2021 questions.

Section 4 - Proposals for potential new derived variables
This asks about proposed new variables or indicators. It also asks if there are any further user needs that we could meet through innovative use of the data we collected through the Census 2021 questionnaire.

Section 5 - Population-base specifications
This asks questions about what analysis data users would conduct using alternative population bases and their needs for small population data.

Section 6 – Taking a census during a period of change
This asks about users’ needs to understand how the pandemic has impacted place of residence, economic activity, employment, travel to work and other topics. It asks about data needs for workplace zones and where there are impacts on the utility of the data for decision-making.

Section 7 - Paradata
This asks about users’ needs for paradata on how we collected the data.

Future stakeholder engagement and consultation

The results of this Census 2021 outputs specification consultation will also inform our goals as an organisation. This includes plans for our longer-term journey to a fully transformed statistical system that makes the best use of all available data.

Our goal is to provide more regular and responsive statistics, particularly in small areas. This will give an improved level of agility, continually adapting to reflect modern society and the new challenges it provides. It will also allow monitoring of a wider and more responsive range of variables and characteristics.

We’ve already begun this work and our overview of progress outlines what we’ve done so far. We will continue to provide updates on this work. In June 2021, we published our latest set of experimental statistics on small area income distributions. These statistics include estimates of self-employment income for the first time.

Later this year, we will launch a further major phase of user engagement. In this, we will share with stakeholders the nature of the transformation we’re proposing. It will also provide an opportunity for us to share the framework of evidence that will inform the National Statistician’s recommendation on the future of the census and population and social statistics. The National Statistician will make this recommendation by the end of 2023.

We’re also conducting a series of user-research projects to improve how people will be able to find, access and use Census 2021 data products.

The purpose of this research is to identify ways we can increase the accessibility and utility of census data. Our aim is for a wider range of users to use Census 2021 data and for a wider range of purposes in comparison to the 2011 Census data.

If you’d like to participate in this user research, please email us at census.outputs@ons.gov.uk for more information.