The role of the census in public policy-making: information practices of policy makers

Killick, L., Deakin, M., Duff, A., Hall, H. (2015, June). The role of the census in public policy-making: information practices of policy makers. Paper presented at Information: interactions and impact (i3) 2015, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.



**The slides for this presentation are available on SlideShare at Following delivery at the conference this work was developed into a journal article entitled ‘The census as an information source in public policy-making’ to be published in the Journal of Information Science 42(3). The full text of the accepted paper is available at**

This paper considers the role of the census in public policy-making with reference to the information practices of policy makers. It draws on empirical work conducted for a research study that is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Across the globe, the population census is under review. Potential cost savings, new technologies and increasing demand for reliable up-to-date information have created the conditions for change (Boyle & Dorling, 2004; Coleman, 2013; Dugmore, Furness, Leventhal, & Moy, 2011; White, 2009). The proposal that in Scotland the next census scheduled for 2021 will predominantly involve online completion of returns raises questions regarding accessibility and data security. In addition, a complex data-sharing protocol is being developed to allow administrative records to be combined with the census data. This is to meet demands for timelier, and more accurate, census outputs. This raises further questions regarding informed consent to the sharing of data, as well as concerns about data security. Some academics question whether levels of participation in the census will be affected by such changes (for example, Cullen, 2009; Heeney, 2012).

Previous studies demonstrate that missing returns in the 1991 UK population censuses adversely affected the UK government’s ability to appropriately distribute resources to local government and other agencies, and in turn direct policy interventions to those most in need (Simpson & Dorling, 1994). Today there is greater availability of alternative information sources on the population than there were in 1991. In addition to the increasing availability of such sources, the extent to which census data is utilised in the development of public policy it is not clear from the literature.

The literature on the whole makes the case for the census. It is considered to be the anchor for all other population statistics, the benchmark against which others are compared (Baffour, King, & Valente, 2013; Chertov & Aleksandrova, 2013, p. 475), and the key data source that enables central government to distribute resources by population need to the regions within the UK (Coleman, 2013; Feather, 2013). The census offices across the UK affirm this position. Each highlights that the primary purpose of the census is to inform policy decisions to support the delivery of public services to create an equal society.

Regardless of the plethora of alternative information sources on the population, the census remains the sole source of small area data. This is information generated by the detailed questions on personal characteristics within the census, and is essential information to identify inequality in society. The importance of small area data, and therefore the census, in local policy-making is a theme present in a range of studies of the census. Many cite the unique role that the census has in generating small area data (for example, Baffour et al, 2013).

Work completed to date in this AHRC-funded project has included a detailed examination of policy decisions published by the Scottish Government in the period following the release of 2011 census outputs. Preliminary results suggest that census data is not routinely cited by civil servants. For example, a detailed content analysis of twenty policy decisions has revealed that census data were used as evidence in five of the twenty cases. In these no mention is made of small area data. Alternative population statistics, such as the Scottish Household Survey, are referred to in thirteen cases (four of which cite the census). Third party evidence (such as findings published in external research reports) is cited multiple times in fourteen of the twenty policy documents (three of which cite the census). There are no cases where the census is cited as the sole source of evidence in this collection of twenty policy documents. An important finding from the analysis of the twenty policy documents is that third party research, which is often research commissioned specifically for an individual policy area, is the preferred source of evidence. This echoes the findings reported by Talbot and Talbot (2014) in their white paper on the information preferences of senior civil servants. The availability of alternative information sources, the preference for third party research, and the apparent low use of census outputs prompts further questions regarding the value of the census as an evidence source for the policy maker.

By June 2015 it will be possible to report further findings from the empirical study on the role of the census in public policy-making, with reference to the practices of policy makers. These will be drawn from the analysis of interview data: twenty individuals who have responsibility for developing, delivering or assessing the implementation of public policy in Scotland are participating in interviews scheduled for early 2015. The interview schedule has been designed to establish policy-makers’ experience of the exploitation of information sources, and particularly the census, in policy development, and their assessment of the impact of their information use. For example, participants will be encouraged to discuss their use of evidence in their roles. Their level of comfort when accessing information sources (including census data), and barriers and facilitators of effective information use is also important to the current study, not least because previous research has highlighted that information literacy levels amongst policy makers in the Scottish Government are important to the key functions of government, as highlighted in the ministerial forward to the 2007 Skills for Scotland: a lifelong skills strategy (as cited in Foreman and Thomson, 2009). However, as Foreman and Smith (2009) note, the need for these skills is implied, rather than made explicit in the learning strategy of the Scottish Government. It is also known that many policy makers tend to rely on internal trusted sources, whereas few seek out formal information sources such as those offered by the Government’s own library service. Nor do they demonstrate the required skill to identify quality material through their own web searching (Foreman and Thomson, 2009, p. 65, p. 67). The challenges of policy development in an information-rich environment will thus form part of the interview discussions. These challenges include determining the level of information literacy required for an individual to be able discriminate between highly and less valuable sources of information (Kauhanen-Simanainen, 2007, p. 142). The analysis of the interview data that derives from this study will give insight into the information behaviours of policy-makers and their current levels of information literacy, taking into account a concerted effort across the Civil Service to improve the knowledge skills of its workforce (The cabinet Office, 2012; National Audit Office, 2013). These findings will be set within the context of the outcomes of the earlier empirical work, as described above.

i3 delegates with interests in how professionals seek and use information - both in general and within the context of policy making - will find this paper of relevance, especially with regards to differing levels of information literacy anticipated in the data subjects under examination. Thus the paper aligns with two of the key conference themes: information behaviour, and information literacies. The consideration of census data (alongside data from other sources) for policy-making, and its eventual impact in practice, is also relevant to the other two conference themes of information as an agent of change and impact.


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Mark Deakin
Professor (Affiliate to CSI)
+44 131 455 2480
Lynn Killick
Research student
+44 131 455 2303
Hazel Hall
Director of CSI
+44 131 455 2760

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