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Opinion

How the Office for National Statistics is changing to make data more inclusive

The Office for National Statistics is changing how it collects analyses UK data to ensure it reflects our society and includes marginalised groups like people experiencing homelessness, says national statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond.

Timely data and analysis are key to effective decisions. But it’s not enough to just track general trends across our whole population. Society is made up of different groups who have different experiences: experiences that we need to recognise and understand if we want a society where everyone can thrive.  

Through the painstaking analysis of data from the Census, death registrations, primary care and hospital records, and the National Immunisation Management System, we have recently found that the Bangladeshi ethnic group and men from the Pakistani ethnic group remained at higher risk than white British people in the third Covid wave, even after adjusting for vaccination status.  

It’s just one example of the vital importance of being able to break down data by groups and characteristics. This is something we’ve been doing for many years, providing the evidence needed for better policies and interventions. It’s because of analysis that considers the experiences of different groups in our society that we can track the pay gap between sexes and ethnicities, show the disparity in life expectancy among different socio-economic groups and much more. 

But while statistics like these play an important role in uncovering inequalities and highlighting differing experiences, there remain notable gaps and groups who remain under-represented in our data: a significant challenge in these rapidly changing times. 

To better understand these gaps and gather evidence to create our new Inclusive Data Taskforce Implementation Plan, I commissioned an external taskforce in 2020 to consult with groups across our society and look at the inclusivity of UK data. This work has allowed us to identify those for which even basic demographic information is lacking, such as gender-diverse people, homeless people, Travellers, and children. 

The reasons for the gaps in data are often complex and differ greatly, but we are committed to filling them and have developed a new plan across the UK statistical system to make sure everyone is counted, and no one is left behind. 

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We know that for some of these groups, such as homeless people and Travellers, data are scarce as they are harder to reach and less likely to access public services. New initiatives that will help to address this include working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the devolved administrations to improve data on people not living in households, and the addition of multimodal surveys that give people more options to participate. 

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Even for those who are included in the data infrastructure, there are gaps in the information that is collected. For example, although data on sexual orientation and disability are collected in several UK sources, there is a scarcity of information on the differing experiences and outcomes of people in terms of these characteristics. There are several ways we will address this, including the updating of standards and guidance for measuring sex and gender, disability and mental health, ethnicity and religion, and the development of a new ONS household survey in partnership with the Cabinet Office on the experiences of disabled people. 

With children, even though we do have data for them, it is often collected from people other than children themselves and therefore children’s own voices may not be heard. New initiatives that will help to address this include two Department for Education cohort studies which will follow children from the age of nine months to the end of primary school, delivering new insights into educational attainment for children with different characteristics and experiences.

ONS will also work with the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit to make linked data on births and infant mortality by a range of characteristics available to approved researchers via the Secure Research Service, providing insights into maternal health disparities.  

This is just some of what will be happening to transform the inclusivity of UK data. We know where the gaps are, so now it’s time to act. Through collaboration with other UK government departments, the devolved administrations and more widely across the system of data producers in the UK, we can make a real and lasting difference. 

This lasting difference will be achieved by building trust with those participating in data supply, improving inclusion and conceptual measurement of currently under-represented population groups, and improvements in the accessibility of data and analysis. 

The UK has robust, dependable statistics. But the more complete our coverage of all sections of society is, and the more precisely we can use data to analyse different aspects of people’s lives, the more valuable our insights will be. Our new plan is a significant milestone but there is still more to be done. As we progress this work, we will continue our interaction with different population groups and those currently under-represented in UK data to ensure that everyone has a voice. 

Professor Sir Ian Diamond is national statistician at the Office for National Statistics

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