Wednesday, 18 May 2011

No Need To Worry About Census Threats

If only I'd known back in March how little information the organisers of this year's census were prepared to accept, this post about my intention to complete the form but to make it as expensive as possible for US arms company Lockheed Martin (who hold the contract to process census data) would have been very different.

I filled in the census form and sent it back with an unofficial 'Supplementary Questions' sheet [PDF] in early April. However, I still had a visit last week from a census collector, who explained that there was no record of the receipt of the form, that Lockheed Martin had evidently lost it and that I'd have to complete another - but not every question.

Remarkably, I was told that at this late stage, forms were accepted as 'complete' as long as H3 (who lives in the household) and individual questions 1 to 4 (name, gender, date of birth and marital status) were filled in. That's it - meaning all the other information, including country of birth, general level of health, ethnicity, qualifications, religion and indepth employment details, were no longer as important as the threat of a £1000 fine seemed to imply.

Now I realise that the Office for National Statistics is keen to improve on lower levels of returned forms in London, but when senior officials say they are "cautiously optimistic" that targets of an average 94% return rate would be met, with no single local authority area returning less than 80% of forms, we should adopt the usual wariness about anyone bandying with statistical assertions, never mind a statistician. These targets may no doubt be achieved, but if my experience is anything to go by, there will be huge holes in the census data that render much of it meaningless.

In the event that there is another census in 2021 (which is in some doubt), the advice to anyone concerned about the privacy implications of handing personal information to the state is also pretty clear: forget about the complicated avoidance tactics and just wait six weeks, pretend you've already sent the form back and then just answer the basic questions. Job done.

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