Asking 27 million households for their data

The decisions that are made by the government, businesses, local authorities and charities on a daily basis are made with knowledge gained from high quality data to inform choices that are made for the public good.

One of the most fundamental sources of data is the census. Described as one of the biggest peacetime operations in the UK, the census is carried out every ten years and is the biggest single source of data collected here. It is the foundation for so many of the statistics that are used to make decisions on a wide range of areas such as where do build new schools, roads and medical facilities.

Ensuring that people living across England and Wales provide us with their personal data is a major communications initiative, particularly during a time of data fraud, fake news and a global pandemic, and has taken years of preparation by communications professionals across the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to get us ready for Census Day on March 21.

Community Engagement

As you can imagine, with the census being such an important source of information, many different groups want to ensure they are counted.

A huge amount of community engagement and consultation goes into designing each census before a White Paper is debated in Parliament.

We have to very carefully consider each and every request in order to build a survey that, when the first set of results are published in 2022, give us the best picture of how our society has changed.

This community engagement goes right up to and beyond Census Day. We work alongside community leaders to make sure that all groups take part in the census are accurately represented in the data. This is vital for many communities who are most in need of the right services and support.

To ensure the census is accessible to all, we translate it into over 50 different languages, as well as support those with disabilities.

Building understanding of the importance of the census

An important aspect throughout our campaign is working closely with the media to build greater understanding of the importance of the census, so that when their invite letter arrives on their doorstep, they grasp the significance of what is being asked.

We’ve targeted key media outlets that have helped us to promote our key messages around the census. This includes interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme by National Statistician, Ian Diamond, an interview on BBC One’s The One Show with census ambassador David Olusoga, and lead census community heroes panellist Joanna Page appearing on BBC Breakfast. Census director Pete Benton is due to appear in a One Show census film on Monday (15th), alongside community advisor Hirendra Patel.

We’ve also done lots of work to spread the word among harder to reach audiences, with articles in outlets such as Asian Voice, T-Vine, The Voice and Muslim News, to name but a few, as well as countless local and regional radio and TV interviews with our census community engagement managers.

At times, we’ve also had to work with journalists to help them understand the reasoning behind some of the difficult decisions we’ve had to make in building the census. Understandably, some groups are incredibly passionate about being represented in the census, whether that be through the addition of new questions or tick boxes in existing questions, but it’s not always possible to accommodate all those requests, so we have had to carefully and sensitively explain why decisions have been made for the good of the whole census.

The work by our Media Relations team has been vital in building and maintaining trust as we approach Census Day and will also be afterwards when we start to communicate the results.

Being creative during a pandemic

Anyone who has worked on a national campaign will know how difficult it is trying to organise all the logistics that go into creating something that will inspire millions to participate.

This has proven an even greater challenge for us in the last twelve months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Working with our marketing partners at Saatchi and Co, we have created a campaign that aims to truly reflect and showcase the diversity of our communities. We did this while only being able to film in a limited number of locations in order to minimise movement during the national lockdown restrictions.

But we’ve also worked hard to educate the whole nation on the importance the census has for the future, not just the next couple of years. We’ve worked closely with schools to develop an education plan for pupils in England and Wales, so they understand the importance of the census and what it teaches us about the changing nature of our society over the last two centuries.

Engaging and reassuring our workforce

The census requires a huge amount of effort by colleagues right across the ONS through the ten-year census cycle. It has a significant impact on all our statistics, so keeping our colleagues informed every step of the way has been vitally important.

We’ve built employee engagement across our internal channels, using videos, articles, blogs and virtual staff events to support our colleagues to be ambassadors for the census, in particular, our thousand strong social survey interviewers who are on the frontline, talking to residents up and down the country.

Coronavirus has posed significant logistical challenges across the data collection profession, but we have worked hard to ensure that we are collecting information in a way that keeps colleagues and the public safe, and have communicated how we are doing this throughout the programme to ensure that staff feel reassured that no one is being put at unnecessary risk.

The data we collect is vitally important for the whole nation and will be key to supporting the on-going response to COVID-19. We’ve created a pack of assets that is available to support colleagues across the Civil Service to get involved in the campaign in their departments too.

Please complete your form and encourage friends and family to return theirs as well. By doing so you will help us to make this the most accurate and inclusive census we have ever had.

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