Called Into Question

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight, Caroline Harrison questions how useful the questions on our national censuses really are.

I was reading, not that long ago, about how Canada’s Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) had written to the government to oppose its plans to drop the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary questionnaire. According to the MRIA, the proposed new voluntary National Household Survey will likely have “a substantially lower” response rate, the resulting data “will be less robust”, and “skewed” and “biased” data will end up being used to formulate public policy.

Not long after, sensationalist headlines appeared in British newspapers declaring that next year’s UK census, which has been carried out every 10 years since 1801 (with the exception of 1941, thanks to World War II), could be the last!

Surely not?!

In fact, when you delve deeper, you discover that it’s not quite as the headlines would have you believe; it’s not so much that the government is thinking of completely scrapping the idea, rather that a better, more useful and less expensive format is being proposed.

Of course, the point of a census is to give the government information on exactly who is living where, so public funds can be better allocated. Yet, I can’t be the only person who thinks the census provides a fascinating snapshot of society, not to mention being an excellent aid to tracing our family trees! In fact, as I took part in my first US census earlier this year, I was strangely excited. I couldn’t help but think that one day, when my great-great-great-grandchildren are tracing their family tree, they will puzzle over why, after appearing on three UK censuses, I suddenly turned up on the other side of the Atlantic!

It’s nearly 10 years since I filled in a UK census form so I can’t honestly remember what information I was asked to provide. However, I have to say I was surprised at how brief the US census form was – basically, just the number of people in the household, then the name, sex, date of birth and ethnicity of each individual.

Following completion of the form, discussion broke out in our New York office as to the questions that were asked. Were there really enough questions to give the government all the information it needs to decide how much funding to put into new roads, hospitals, policing, etc? Were the ethnicity and race questions that were asked really all that relevant or politically correct?

Take, for example, Q8 on the census:

Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?

  • No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
  • Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano
  • Yes, Puerto Rican
  • Yes, Cuban
  • Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin (please specify)

Then Q9, asking about race, gave the options of:

  • White
  • Black, African Am., or Negro
  • American Indian or Alaska Native (please specify)
  • Asian Indian
  • Japanese
  • Native Hawaiian
  • Chinese
  • Korean
  • Guamanian or Chamorro
  • Filipino
  • Vietnamese
  • Samoan
  • Other Asian (please specify)
  • Other Pacific Islander (please specify)
  • Some other race (please specify)

One colleague gave the example of a friend who, although living for many years in New York, was originally Puerto Rican, but with one Jewish and one Cuban parent. How should she classify herself? Taking this one step further, how does she define her daughter, whose father is white? Which box or boxes should she tick? How well are the various options labelled? How necessary are these questions in the first place?

I don’t know if the US census got it exactly right. It would appear that the current UK census might not be working to its full potential. Canada seems keen to improve its census but may not be going the right way about it.

What this is all bringing me to say, in a very roundabout way, is that devising the perfect questionnaire, which asks all the right questions, gives all the right options for answers, and is exactly the right length so as to gather all the required information without putting people off completing it, is a hugely skillful task. As with most things, different people will have their own opinions as to the best approach – and many of them will have valid points to make. But only through knowledge of devising questionnaires, a great deal of experience in the field, and more than a dash of common sense, will you have a real chance of getting it just right.

And that, appearing today on the blog of a leading b2b market research specialist, is all I want to say on the matter!

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