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Is there still sense in running a census?

In the middle of this month the 2011 census forms will drop through the letterbox of every household in the UK, asking us about who we are and what we do. It is an operation that authorities have worked hard to perfect over the 200 years or more that the census has run for.

One innovation for 2011 is that people will be able to complete their returns online. But 2011 may also be the last time we are asked to take part, as the UK census authorities are developing alternative ways to obtain the required information.

Other governments are already using different approaches. Instead of asking people questions every 10 years, they use population registers. These consist of administrative data drawn from a number of government databases, such as birth and death registers, and provide continuous and up-to-date population data. This year, Germany is running a complete register-based census of more than 82 million people; India is implementing a register alongside its census of more than 1.2 billion people. The Nordic countries have used registers since the 1970s. In 1981, Denmark became the first country in the world to conduct a totally register-based census; Finland followed in 1990, and Norway and Sweden are planning to carry out their first fully register-based censuses this year.

In countries where censuses are still the main method of producing population statistics, some governments are scaling them back. The US government reduced its 2010 census to 10 short questions, and the Canadian government has decided to do likewise in the census it is planning for this year.

In the UK, two Treasury Committee enquiries (2002 and 2008) recommended that alternatives be investigated and suggested the 2011 census could be the last. Now the Coalition Government has picked up the ball, as recently affirmed by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the census.

So what’s wrong with the census, a method that some people date back to the Domesday book? Well, censuses cost a lot – roughly £480m this time – and they are slow to deliver results. They are taken only every 10 years and the estimates need to be regularly ad- justed based on birth and death registrations and migration surveys. Then there’s the fact that not everyone responds – about three million failed to send in returns in 2001 – and this tends to bias the results in favour of certain groups and places.

What, then, of the alternatives? Maude says there are ways of counting a population that are quicker, can be carried out more frequently and are cheaper. He echoes arguments put forward by others that governments already have mountains of population data collected through the registration of people’s life events, details of income earned and taxes paid, licenses obtained, borders crossed, and so on.

Maude suggests that some of these databases – perhaps those of the Im- migration and Passport Service, HM Revenue and DVLA – could be joined up.This would produce an alternative to apopulation register that essential- ly achieves the same result: an up-to- date and centralised identification and real-time count of the population.

Some privacy campaigners regard the censusas intrusive and would sup- port the idea of collating existing gov- ernment data; others, though, argue thatcombining data in this way involves constantly tracking people’s activities, and is potentially much more intrusive and surveillant than any census.

There are many other arguments against scrapping the census. Historians, demographers, statisticians and family genealogists all express concerns about losing the most comprehensive source of population data that we have – one which allows us to look at comparable data over time. Census returns going back to 1801 are used to study social and cultural change and family histories.

These concerns are important, but there is one big question that has yet to be raised. What is being ignored here is that the method we use shapes the population we get. It’s not just “the population” that is changing: what counts or matters to governments is also changing. The make-up and movement of people inhabiting the UK have always varied: consider the massive migrations of the 19th century. But now those very movements and changes are of heightened interest to governments, which can study them using new information technologies. Increasingly, governments are looking at populations as dynamic things that need to be tracked and monitored.

Compare this approach with what happens when a census is taken. Every 10 years people say who they are on census questionnaires. Governments decide on the questions; but people can, and do, intervene by challenging both the questions and the categories. For example, after much lobbying, the addition of a question on religion, and of Irish as an ethnic category, were introduced in the 2001 censuses for England and Wales. And although completing the census is mandatory, people are rarely fined for not complying.

In contrast, centralised databases are authoritative government classifications of people that depend on verifiability. They report what people do in relation to government rather than what they choose to report about themselves. People cannot choose how they get categorised in databases and on forms that they themselves do not fill in: who we are is not negotiable.

So one method depends on us saying who we think we are; the other simply tells us. This is an important distinction because, as well as being used for allocating resources and rights, population knowledge is also used to write narratives about the nation. The census tells a story that people have the opportunity to co-author. Once the last census has come and gone, an opportunity to intervene and say who we think we are will be lost.

Dr Evelyn Ruppert is a research fellow with the Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change at The Open University. She recently completed The Last Census, an ESRC-funded project.