If I think this, what do you think?

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight Paul Hague reflects on his thoughts on completing the UK census form.

I have been a market researcher all my life. 40 years in fact. I love the job. It fulfils my intellectual curiosity, it indulges my love of travel, and it satisfies my desire for constant change – and yet I find it really difficult to take part in surveys. In the main I am protected from this by the Market Research Society guidelines that recommend most survey designers screen out the likes of me, knowing that my professional knowledge will bias my answers in some small degree.

However, last week I got my come-uppance. I returned home to find 32 pages of questions had thudded onto our welcome mat, with an introductory letter that informed me I would be incarcerated if I didn’t comply. Yippee – it is decennial census time. I looked at this daunting instrument of torture and I couldn’t begin to think how your average 85 year old, single gypsy, now separated from a same-sex relationship, would cope.

Fortified by three large glasses of sauvignon blanc, I decided to fill it in online. It was so easy I sailed through, congratulating myself and secure in the knowledge that the analysts who look at these things would be able to see that the time I had taken to complete the questionnaire was a world record. That was until I came to question 43, which asked me how many visitors would be in my house on the 27th March. Since I was pretty certain there wouldn’t be any, I looked for the button to say this and move on. However, there was no such button to tick. It seemed I had to have a visitor on the 27th or I was stuck.

I wondered whether Alfie, my 11-year-old boxer, would qualify but I couldn’t see any space for pets and animals in the form. I clearly needed a human visitor and I decided that to get out of the impasse I would invent one (I know, I know – I was risking a jail sentence, but by now I didn’t care). We often do have a couple of elderly relatives stay with us so why couldn’t I imagine that they were on one of their stop overs? In went Rosie’s name to start with, and this prompted a question about her date of birth. I had no idea and this was beginning to look ridiculous. I shouldn’t be making this up and, anyway, the more things I invented, the deeper the hole I dug myself into.

It was at this stage that my conscience was pricked and my head cleared slightly so I decided to work out what was going wrong. As I tracked back through the questionnaire, it became clear that in my slightly inebriated state I had incorrectly filled in question H5, which I thought had said how many people will be in the house on the 27th and it had, in fact, asked how many visitors would there be. Since I had answered 2 people, it was quite clear that this was the reason the computer-aided questionnaire was routing me to the visitor question.

So, what are my insights from all this? The experience of completing the questionnaire was better than the anticipation of doing so – which I was dreading. However, I found myself wondering about the futility of some of the questions. Surely the census is a head count of the people living in households and not much more. If we need to dig deeper on my thoughts and feelings such as the state of my health right now, or how well I can speak English (??), this is the stuff of sample surveys. Over-complication is a crime and we are over-complicating everything, including the design of our questionnaires.

Isn’t it a reflection of the politically correct world that we have to necessitate a special questionnaire for Welsh speakers and weird combinations of answers to which people can say they are British/English, simply British, simply English, British/Welsh, simply Welsh and so on. And please guess how many will actually tick the box that says they are Gypsy or Irish Traveller. Minorities must be looked after in our daily life but, in the case of a census, we should not be designing our process around 0.01% of any population.

I know that we have been keeping tabs on our population since the Doomsday book, but the census as we know it in the UK began in 1801. I don’t think anyone will shed any tears over the fact that this is our last one and from now on we will rely on sample surveys. My saving grace is that my completed form will be kept confidential for 100 years. So, unless I tell you, you won’t know that I am a surviving partner from a same-sex civil partnership, living in a holiday home, of any other Black/African/Caribbean/Black British extraction, holding an Irish passport, actively looking for work over the last four weeks and whose main language is British Sign Language.

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