Dear Iain

Assessment of 2021 Censuses in the UK – Office for National Statistics (ONS) Response to Preliminary Findings

We have reviewed the actions that your team has taken to address the findings in Assessment Report 345: 2021 Censuses in the UK – Preliminary Findings. These findings aim to build on the existing work being undertaken by Census offices, providing further direction and focus on pre-existing plans.

The Office for Statistics Regulation’s (OSR’s) advice on the National Statistics designation will be based on the trustworthiness, quality and value secured by Census offices. That advice will take account of the actions taken to address findings or requirements from OSR as part of this assessment process. While many of the Phase 1 findings can only be fully actioned or addressed over longer timescales, it is my view that ONS has responded positively to the assessment findings so far. ONS has been open to challenge from the assessment team and I am encouraged that improvements have been made in a number of areas. The Census is one of the most important sources of official statistics and I recognise the ongoing commitment of ONS to deliver high quality data and statistics; recognising the challenges and changes in ways of working that have had to be managed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since we published our assessment report in October 2019, my team has engaged with various members of your staff working on the Census to understand the improvements you have made since then. I welcome the openness and flexibility that has been shown to the assessment team. In evaluating how ONS has responded to our findings we have taken account of published materials from ONS including the evidence report Response to actionable findings from Phase 1 of the National Statistics Accreditation, alongside information gathered through meetings and workshops held with your teams. I consider that some actions taken by ONS are of note.

  • My team held a number of workshops with staff who have been working to develop methods, on areas such as item imputation and census coverage adjustment. We consider that ONS is taking a rigorous approach to its methods development. We are very pleased to see that methods papers, which have been reviewed by your external Methodological Assurance Review panel, are now in the public domain. This is a significant improvement to aid transparency and share knowledge and expertise with the wider community of expert users and stakeholders.
  • Some findings from our assessment report involved making improvements to recognise the needs of UK Census data users. ONS has taken a lead role in addressing these findings and has established a UK Census data working group – with representation from across the Census offices; we recognise the commitment and energy of ONS staff working in this area.
  • The questions to be asked in the Census in 2021 have been finalised. However, we are aware that some stakeholders have outstanding concerns with the guidance on the Census sex question. ONS has continued to engage with users and stakeholders about this and we recognise the efforts being made to provide answers or explanations on areas of concern. ONS should seek to address outstanding concerns raised by users within its further question testing and research on the guidance on the sex question. ONS should share the outcomes of this research in a transparent and open way.

We consider that further action is still needed in some areas identified for improvement in our assessment report – this is partly due to changing circumstances such as the impacts on programme delivery given the pandemic. For example, while ONS has plans to make improvements to its website, to date there has been little change made to make it more accessible. Key documents and materials are not easy to find and navigation on the webpages is not intuitive. ONS should implement its plans over the coming months to improve the accessibility of research and other Census information on its website.

In the assessment report the need to be clear to users on the impacts of country-specific decision making on UK Census data and statistics. Due to the decision by Scottish Ministers to delay the Census in Scotland, it is even more important ONS work with the other Census offices to explain the impacts of this to UK Census data users.

From speaking with your teams, it is clear ONS recognises the importance of communicating to England and Wales Census data users about delivering its Census in 2021 and on its scheduled plans for Census outputs. Users should be kept up to date and be provided with further detail as more information on the timing and content of statistical outputs becomes available.

We have included more detail about our judgement in an annex to this letter (See PDF download). I, or my team, would be happy to talk you or your colleagues through any aspects of this letter or Code compliance more generally.

I am copying this letter to Sir Ian Diamond, National Statistician and Stephanie Howarth, Interim Chief Statistician, Welsh Government.

Yours sincerely

Ed Humpherson
Director General for Regulation