National census set to go digital

The paper-based national census is set to end, as the Office for National Statistics looks to replace its 10-yearly survey with a digital alternative

The use of a paper-based national census is set to end, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) looks to replace its 10-yearly survey with a digital alternative.

The ONS has opened a consultation to examine two options to replace the lengthy paper-based questionnaire that was last issued in 2011.

In one scenario, the census would continue to be taken every 10 years, but would instead be conducted primarily online – with exceptions made for those among the population with no internet access.

In the alternative, the ONS would use existing data held across the public sector, such as tax, welfare and education records – in this situation, a snapshot of England and Wales could be taken every year.

Scotland and Northern Ireland run their own census projects.

The online census is the more expensive option, estimated at £625m across each 10-year period, compared with £460m for using existing data.

In 2011, the process cost £482m and required 40,000 staff, most of whom were needed for just six weeks. But the 2011 survey cost 35% more in real terms than its 2001 predecessor and costs are likely to increase again by 2021.

“There are different ways we could take a census in future, and they have different strengths and weaknesses. The best approach has yet to be decided, and this consultation will help us understand what matters the most,” said Peter Benton, Beyond 2011 programme director at the ONS.

Census data is used to underpin much of the country’s economic planning, particularly in areas such as population growth and housing.

“Moving to a census method using administrative data and surveys would be the most radical change in the production of population statistics in England and Wales since 1801,” said the ONS.

Some countries have already moved to a more digital approach. Scandinavian countries, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Israel and Germany have moved to systems based primarily on administrative data.

But the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand continue to use more traditional census approaches, said the ONS.

The consultation runs from 23 September to 13 December, and its results will be published next year,

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