Census 2021: creating an accessible and inclusive campaign

Debra Ruh: “Accessibility allows us to tap into everyone’s potential.”

The importance of accessibility and inclusivity to Census 2021 can be summed up by this quote from businesswoman and disability rights advocate, Debra Ruh.

The census is a survey that’s run every 10 years by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It provides the turbo charge of data that powers decision-making across England and Wales. Without a full and accurate count, it would be impossible to plan public services to meet all our needs for the next 10 years. This would create an unfair bias from the outset.

If you’re not counted, you may not count.

The Census 2021 campaign aimed to tap into everyone’s potential by reaching out to 27 million households across England and Wales. It had an unprecedented response rate of over 97% and a minimum 90% return across every local authority. As a result, Census 2021 has exceeded its targets, helping to build a solid foundation to ‘build back better’.

A laptop showing the Census 2021 questionnaire start page and a collection of census materials including an initial contact letter with the access code, a ‘What you need to know’ flyer, a Census 2021 branded envelope and Census postcard. All are displayed on a kitchen table.

Catrice M. Jackson: “If you don’t have a plan for inclusivity your plan is to be exclusive.”

Speaker and author Catrice M. Jackson reminds us that unless inclusivity is baked-in from the outset, you’ll miss the mark. The census campaign kicked-off with audience insight and research. It was a mainstay throughout the campaign’s development and delivery. And it’s playing a full role in campaign evaluation.

The Campaigns team commissioned its own research, but also worked collaboratively to design a user-friendly, seamless service with every part of the census operation. This included everything from working with community and disability groups beforehand to tailoring specific accessible services for census completion and follow-up to ensure everyone is counted.

Before launching Census 2021, the team created a comprehensive accessibility strategy, in consultation with the Government Equalities Office, which became the campaign’s touchstone. Covering topics ranging from design principles to language requirements, the strategy outlined the ONS’s accessibility commitments. It also explained how the ONS would deliver on these promises both online and offline. The strategy was shared widely, and with external communications agencies, to make sure everyone followed the same principles.

William Somerset Maugham: “The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”

Playwright and author Somerset Maugham’s quote sums up the delicate balancing act between what’s common and consistent and what should be tailored and differentiated. Everyone benefits from an accessible approach to communications, which is why the Census 2021 brand was designed to be as simple and accessible as possible. The Campaigns team were keen to ensure that communications lived up to the “It’s about us” philosophy that became the campaign strapline. This was reflected in aspects such as font sizes, layout principles and colour usage in materials ranging from postcards to out-of-home advertising. The inclusive approach ran through the huge variety of images and voices that aimed to capture and celebrate the diversity of England and Wales. This culminated in community awards and was encapsulated in a Gogglebox spot.

William Cowper: “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour”

Poet and hymnodist William Cowper underlines the value of difference, but also the need to respond to it effectively. While Census 2021 was billed as the first digital-first census, it was essential to build a campaign and a service that catered for everyone’s needs. It needed to work for everyone regardless of whether they preferred to complete on a mobile or required a large-print questionnaire and face-to-face support.

Communications and advertising were produced in hundreds of different formats, including 34 languages, alongside English and Welsh and ran across a myriad of channels. Campaign messaging came from a huge variety of spokespeople, both inside and outside of the ONS. Sign Language was used on online help videos and 10% of TV adverts, as well as subtitles.

The ONS offered a language phone line for help with translations, as well as a text relay service. Census Support Centres provided computer access and support for those lacking the access or confidence to complete online. These individuals could also complete via telephone capture. A network of over 300 Census Engagement Managers and Community Advisors worked with communities at a regional and local level. They helped people to overcome barriers to completion and offered more tailored communications and support.

Each of these individual measures helped to ensure that as many people as possible could engage with the census and access the information that they needed. They also provided a useful source of feedback to help hone and improve the communications throughout the campaign.

Carol Burnett: “Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own.”

In the run-up to Census Day on 21 March, teams across ONS collaborated to draft the written materials that would land on people’s doorsteps. As well as careful consideration about behavioural insights, messaging and design, these materials were subject to a range of testing, including:

  • user testing
  • eye-tracking
  • accessibility testing
  • visual impairment testing
  • cognitive testing

Each of these steps was crucial to ensure that letters, leaflets and postcards containing important information were clear, useful and accessible. Materials were produced in a range of accessible formats, such as braille, easy read and large print.

Andrew Keen: “Being human in the digital world is about building a digital world for humans.”

It was crucial that the census website and questionnaire were intuitive and user-friendly. Just as with the printed materials, the website content and design were subject to rigorous testing, including:

  • remote usability testing sessions
  • telephone interviews
  • card sorts
  • tree-jack exercises

This process allowed the ONS to test the website with real users in different circumstances, including shared households, users with access needs and those with protected characteristics as set out in the Equality Act 2010. It resulted in an intuitive website that continually evolved in response to testing to help ensure that its users could access information quickly and easily.

The Census 2021 website design included a range of measures to enhance accessibility. For instance, the site let users change colours and contrast levels, as well as zoom in up to 300%. It was also designed so that people could navigate most of the site using just a keyboard, speech recognition software or a screen reader. This included the most recent versions of JAWS, NVDA and VoiceOver.

On 20 May, the Civil Service will join others around the world in recognising Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). This day serves to highlight the importance of digital accessibility in communications. And as Learning at Work Week begins and Census 2021 demonstrates, there’s no better time to renew our collective effort to tap into everyone’s potential through accessibility.