The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is exploring new ways to build an accurate portrait of modern society.
High-quality, timely and accurate population statistics are essential to make sure people get the services and support they need, both within their local communities and nationwide. They provide evidence for policies, planning for new services or help for businesses and investors to deliver economic growth across the country, so it is vital our population statistics reflect the needs of everyone.
Not only do our population statistics give us the overall estimate for how many people are in the country and reflect how this is changing, they also provide us with a wealth of other insights about our society. For example, we can see how things like income and health can vary based on characteristics such as ethnic group and disability or how different life events affect different people. This can help decision-makers assess and address disparities and determine how their policies impact on people’s lives.
Currently the census provides the backbone of these statistics, giving us a rich picture of our society at national and local levels every ten years. However, these statistics become less accurate over the decade and local detail on important topics becomes increasingly out of date as we move further way from the census year. The pandemic highlighted how some aspects of our society can be quickly disrupted and we need statistics that can keep pace with similar, new changes.
With that in mind, the ONS has launched a public consultation which covers our proposals to create a sustainable system for producing population statistics that is flexible and responsive to change. We have set out our vision in detail and welcome your views on the priorities for the future of population and migration statistics, so that they can best meet the needs of everyone in years to come.
Moving away from reliance on a census every 10 years, up to date administrative data – information that we all provide when we access public services like the tax, benefits, health and education systems – could be at the core of the new system. ONS has released proofs of concept to illustrate this potential future state. These data could be complemented by survey data with a wider range of other data sources, and a variety of statistical methods.
If implemented, the proposed system would respond more effectively to society’s changing needs by giving users high-quality population statistics each year. It would also offer new and additional insights into the changes and movement of our population across different seasons or times of day. For many topics, it would provide much more local information not just once a decade but every year, exploring them in new detail and covering areas not recorded by the census, such as income. This would unlock a wide range of analysis and insights, with the potential to shine new light on many aspects of our lives.
The ONS is gathering feedback on how far the proposals are likely to meet user needs and where it should be prioritising future research. Your input will therefore be essential evidence for the National Statistician’s recommendations on the future of population and migration statistics, and the census.
Emma Rourke is deputy national statistician at the Office for National Statistics.