The last Census? An essay about data

For ten years I didn’t officially exist. As a student who’d newly arrived in London from Belfast, I distinctly remember taking delivery of a lengthy form for the 1991 census. But those were the days of the hated poll tax, and like many young people I didn’t entirely trust the motives of government statisticians. Why did they want to know this all this stuff about who I was, and what were they going to do with it? Since there didn’t seem to be any pressing reason to tell them, I didn’t bother to send it back.

Once a decade the government has a go at counting up everyone who lives here, and this time the date falls on March 27. The results are always interesting, and not only for the data they collect. Since its origins in Malthusian concerns about population growth in 1801, the census has been a great way of measuring the fears and priorities of those in authority and our attitude to those authorities. It is, after all, a flagship national project and the biggest peacetime exercise carried out in the UK – the jewel in the crown of Britain’s Office for National Statistics. It’s also a herculean feat of logistics; this time, by posting out forms and collecting data from twenty-five million households at exactly the same time, forty thousand field collectors will aim at a uniquely authoritative, everyone-at-the-same-time snapshot of who’s living in England and Wales and where they are. It doesn’t come cheap. The total cost of the current census is currently estimated to be £482 million, up from £255 million the last time.  In many ways it remains good value. The data it brings back on where we are, how old we are and how we live is enormously useful for researchers and planners of all kinds. It’s on the basis of census data that government works out how much money to give local government and where schools, hospitals and roads ought to be built. Then there are the charities and religious groups who pore over its data to decide where to allocate grants or build churches, the companies who use it to work out where to build supermarkets and houses, the academics and demographers look to it as the definitive record of shifts in the make-up of the population. The census is a great way of telling us who we are and how we’ve changed, and then creating a conversation around it. It was the last one, for example, which confirmed the progress of our ageing society; for the first time, it informed us, there were more people over 60 than there were children, and the result was to create a wave of media interest in everything from Harley Davidsons to day spas.

The most bracing lesson this current census has to tell us about ourselves, however, is that’s it’s very likely to be our last. For some years now, rumours have been brewing that its methods are ineffective and a little passé. In July last year the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude let the cat out of the bag, telling the Daily Telegraph that the census was “out of date almost before it has been done” and that the cash-conscious coalition government was rooting around for cheaper alternatives. Back in 2008 a Treasury Select Committee report concluded that the census was largely obsolete, and that patching together various databases on local populations held by government departments like the Department for Work and Pensions could track population movements more cheaply and more effectively than the census collectors. Since the data held by government departments and the sophisticated electronic databases managed by credit-checking agencies is constantly changing, runs this sort of argument, the data they throw up could make for a more responsive and more timely population count. Other countries, the committee noted, are moving away from relying on weighty, once-a-decade questionnaires. Finland, for example, now uses a ‘population register’ made up of the data their citizens leave behind in their brushes with national government; the forms people fill in and the bills they pay. Last years American census was the shortest in the country’s history. The data collectors shrunk their questionnaire to an all-time low of just ten questions – to add colour and texture, they combine the answers with data from a more exhaustive survey they post to a quarter of a million American households every month.

None of these alternatives, however, bring back quite the kind of information aspired to by a full census. For academics and number crunchers, what’s so exciting about census data is that it’s not worked up from a small sample of the population – it’s a full and comprehensive questionnaire in which everyone is asked the same questions at more or less the same time. To many of its defenders, it’s also a weapon in the armoury of the modern welfare state. Government still relies on its finely grained data to dole out resources to the areas and groups which need it the most. In some ways the coalition government is now in a bind. It would love to save money by replacing the census with administrative data gathered from its various departments, but it knows that we’re already suspicious of what an all-knowing ‘big brother’ state is doing with our data, which makes it all the more difficult to justify aggregating information about us gleaned from its different departments. This scepticism about how government handles our data isn’t entirely justified. The information the census currently collects can’t be passed around to any other government department. It remains confidential for a hundred years.

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The first box I ever do remember ticking was White-Irish. It was three months after the 1991 census, on an equal-opportunities form for a job managing a hostel for homeless families in the London Borough of Southwark. I got the job. There were good reasons why Southwark Council should want to collect information on my ethnic origins; the borough has always had a large and spirited Irish immigrant community, and earlier generations of them had been discriminated against, so it made sense to keep an eye on how many were getting jobs or failing to get them. But when authorities identify people by their ethnicity and force them into boxes, they risk forcing them into stereotypes and colluding with others who would like to define them as a species apart. Many of those living in that Southwark hostel had only recently arrived in the UK, and among them a young Turkish woman who was on the run from a husband who’d tried to kill her. I’d been informed by her caseworker that she didn’t speak a word of English, but after three months of watching my attempts to communicate with her via elaborate mime she burst out laughing and confided that her English was almost perfect. The competition for permanent council housing was intense, and she was simply trying to do everything possible to secure a home for her and her son. She just wanted to tick all the boxes.

As the politics of class has disappeared and the social fabric has withered away, the authorities have become increasingly and somewhat intrusively concerned to understand who we are as well as how we live. In its heyday, our allegiance to the welfare state was rooted in a contract forged between social classes. Without it, the state has been forced to hunt around for what political scientists call “new cleavages” – new ways to understand who we are and what we might want. Its questionnaire sociologists started out by putting us in boxes according to our ethnicity. The question on ethnicity was first included in 1991, and the point was to take account of the special needs of ethnic minority groups and monitor racial disadvantage. In the last census, the collectors moved on to ask us questions about our religion; the reason for doing that was to find sub-groups with the same ethnicity but different religions and get a better understanding of how they’d wish to be identified. For the first time this year, we’ll be given the opportunity to go beyond religion and ethnicity and define our national identity; in something of a sop to devolution, we’ll be given a choice of ‘Welsh’, ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Northern Irish’, British, or ‘other.’ All this box-ticking adds up. A century ago the census was able to fit on a single sheet, but by 1991 it had grown to 34 questions, the following decade there were 41, and this year there’ll be 43. American census collectors reckon that it takes ten minutes to fill in their short form; to fill in ours will take you about an hour.

At the same time that government has become more curious to know who we are, we’ve become increasingly resistant to answering its questions. In 1991, the year I gave census collectors the slip, it’s estimated that a million people joined me and didn’t show up in the final count. Nearly a million went missing in 2001 too (defying a massive publicity campaign to “Count Me In”) but this time the data collectors were ready; they buttressed their main census with an extensive sampling exercise a month later to get a handle of how many people they’d missed. There’s no doubt that quite a few of those who weren’t counted in the last census were recently arrived migrants who simply didn’t want to be counted. It’s easier and lazier, though, to blame those at the margins for developments closer to home. It’s not only immigrants, after all, who’re shying away from the census collectors. Many of us live behind entry-phones and in large blocks, making it difficult for the census collectors to find out who lives behind our doors. We move around a lot more for work or pleasure, flitting around from one place to another and in and out of the country. One of the frustrations involved in gathering good census data, say its supporters, is that it’s exactly the kind of people mostly likely to evade the census collectors – inner city ethnic populations and young, fitfully employed men living in cities – who stand to lose out most if their living circumstances don’t show up in the data.

Just as ominous for the questionnaire sociologists, many of those who do fill in the form are baulking at the boxes prepared from them by the authorities. Last year, when researchers from the think-tank the Institute of Public Policy Research confronted people with the ethnic and religious categories listed in the last census, most felt them a laughably inadequate way of capturing who they were. In their subsequent report “You Can’t Put Me In A Box”, they found that “young Britons in particular seem not to care much for tick-box approaches to identity.” Many of those they interviewed seemed actively to be rebelling against the classifications foisted upon them by the authorities in favour of more fluid and multi-faceted identities of their own choosing. While they agreed that some aspects of one’s identity were given or inherited, “it was very important to our participants that their identity was something in which they had a choice and that that choice was a free choice.” They seem to be resisting religious classification, too. Shortly before that UK Census was collected in 2001, an email was passed around suggesting that if ten thousand Britons identified their religion as Jedi Knight, the fictional faith espoused in the Star Wars films, the authorities would be forced to recognise it as a religion. It wasn’t strictly true, but that didn’t stop 390, 000 doing it anyway, making Jedi the fourth largest religion in the country. Something similar had happened in New Zealand the previous month, and sizeable Jedi populations have since identified themselves in New Zealand and Canada. It’s not hard to guess at their motives. “Do it because you love Star Wars”, the email concluded. “If not…then just do it to annoy people.” This year the Jedi will be joined by hard rockers, amid a campaign to have heavy metal listed as a religion. Two months before the event, the Facebook group ‘Heavy Metal for the 2011 Census’ had over thirty thousand followers.

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Campaigns for silly religions are more than simply wrecking exercises. They speak to our pressing need to be part of something, preferably something which kicks against the categories suggested by the Census. If the young Britons interviewed by the IPPR were feeling boxed in by the classifications offered them by the authorities, for example, it didn’t stop them filling in boxes of their own. The only problem with the official categories, they felt, was that they were “so broad and impersonal as to preclude or hinder any sense of who they thought they were as a unique individual.” When invited to, they were more than happy to replace them with ones of their own. Asked by the researchers “who they are”, they were more likely to name their values or personal characteristics than any of their demographic attributes. “Rather than ‘male, 32, Scottish’, for example, people told us they were ‘warm, bright, funny’; less Census category, more personal ad.”

This enthusiasm for identifying ourselves in different ways should hardly be surprising. Our reluctance to be categorised by the census has gone hand in hand with an increased willingness to divulge information about ourselves in other ways. On our profile pages on Facebook and MySpace we’re rushing to choose our own categories online, answering the questions we want in quirky ways that we feel comfortable with and then bunching together around the things we really like. It’s as if we’ve become our very own questionnaire sociologists, dutifully profiling ourselves according to our name, age, gender and relationship status before gleefully compiling lists of our interests and favourite things – we seem to be happiest filling out empty boxes and sculpting an identity for ourselves. Everything is constantly updated, and whenever any of it changes the news is broadcast to everyone we know. Mostly we seem to be telling the truth – MySpace’s Chris De Wolfe, for example, reckons that 98% of his American users correctly identify where they live and report important changes, such as getting married or moving house, soon after they happen. For the most part, though, it’s often the very same people who are throwing their data around online who are reluctant to give it to the state. During last year’s American census, return rates were initially so low in a few of New York’s hipper areas as to give rise to a media panic. Perhaps, noted one journalist, they were too busy tweeting.

One thing this suggests that we’re tiring of the demands of questionnaire sociologists. Many of the questions we’re asked in myriad polls and surveys feel loaded and a little cheap. On the net it’s easier to wriggle out of other people’s categories and express who we are in ways that we want. The census, of course, allows for this – if we bother to fill in its boxes called ‘other’. But on the net more or less everything is ‘other’ – the boxes we like filling in the most are those which give us free rein to write anything we please. It makes it easier for the watchers, too. There’s less need for them to ask us questions when we’re telling them everything online. Blue-chip companies can afford to buy in sophisticated electronic databases telling them exactly what we’re buying and where; our supermarket loyalty cards, too, make it easier than ever for them to follow us around. Even better, they can track us via the fine grains of information we leave behind as we move around online. Just like big business, the state seems to know that its audience has been slipping away from it for several decades. Without much in the way of mediating institutions between it and the public it’s lost, which is why public officials are so desperate to get a better bead on who we. But compared to the corporates, with their vast vaults of credit card data and their armies of audience researchers, government often looks like the poor relation.

They’re doing their best to catch up. A working group within the ONS, called the ‘Beyond 2011 project’, is already looking at the future of the census and examining the alternatives. This year, for the first time, we’ll be able to submit our census data online. But the problems with the census are not just about technology – they mirror the decline in social solidarity itself. In essence, they’re a symptom of a quiet falling-out between ourselves and public authorities, a mismatch between the ways in which they want to understand us and the ways in which we wish to understand ourselves. The reason why we fill in our profiles so carefully in places like Facebook is that we get to define ourselves the way we want, for those we wish to be seen by. The result is a huge ocean of information about who we are and what we like. This is data the questionnaire sociologists could only dream about, and it’s going to yield fascinating insights into who we are. It can’t tell us the hard data that government really needs to know, but it’s doesn’t seek to pigeon hole us in rigid categories either. This time, older and a little more responsible, I’ll send the census form back. But I’m still suspicious as to why the government’s data collectors need to ask so many questions, and I’m no more enthusiastic about the ways that they want to understand me. And that, in the end, should tell them more about national identity than the tick-box they’ll give me to express it.

James Harkin is the author of Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream. This essay will appear in The New Statesman, issue dated 21 March 2011

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