Key elements of the design

This section highlights the key elements of the design which includes initial thinking on the 2021 questionnaire, how we are planning on ensuring inclusion and supporting respondents, engaging with our stakeholders and plans for publicising the census. 

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Designing the questionnaire

We will build on the success of the online household questionnaire used in 2011 but there are challenges as well as opportunities. We need to develop a questionnaire that is easy to use as well as being suitable for a range of digital devices (for example a PC, tablet or mobile phone). We will undertake research to ensure that a robust design for an online capture system is developed which both improves data quality and reduces any unnecessary burden on respondents. The design of the online questionnaire will take account of good practice standards and guidance.

In addition, the online questionnaire will be designed first - and independently from any paper questionnaire - to maximise online take up and the gains in data quality. Opportunities that will be considered and tested include:

  • contextual help to help complete questions
  • use of detailed drop-down boxes to reduce, or eliminate altogether, the amount of typing or subsequent coding required
  • more comprehensive validation within and between questions
  • redesign of questions to be device neutral.

Accessing census questionnaires

As a result of conducting the census primarily online, the way householders are introduced to their census questionnaire will change. International research suggests a postal first contact is the best and most cost-effective solution to ensure both coverage and address verification for the household. We are therefore planning to post-out an Internet Access Code to every household in Scotland.

This emphasises the importance of holding a high quality address list (our ‘address register’) and places it at the heart of the census design and operation. An address list which draws from the best national sources is essential for delivering the necessary information to households and allow us to target follow-up for those households which do not initially respond.

In addition, the address register will underpin other processes which support the production of outputs following the census. We developed a high quality address register for the 2011 Census which has been maintained and we will continue to make improvements before its use in 2021.

Ensuring inclusion

Although we intend to carry out the census primarily online, we are aware that there will be households who cannot respond online or who do not wish to do so. We therefore need to ensure that services are in place to support these households. Understanding our respondents and how they wish to interact with the census collection exercise is key to achieving the maximum response rate and work is currently underway to begin to do this.

For instance, we are working with Scottish Government Digital Directorate and key public and third sector organisations to gain a better understanding of the challenges and solutions available.

In addition, regardless of their digital capability, there will always be parts of the population who are hard to reach and are at risk of low levels of engagement or response. This includes those who may experience accessibility issues for example due to a health condition, language or literacy difficulties as well as those who do not wish to provide their information to us. We are considering who these groups may be for the 2021 Census so we can engage with them to understand their needs, concerns and to explore appropriate ways to support their participation.

Supporting respondents

We are currently carrying out research to find the best ways to help and support the public in 2021. But as with previous censuses, we will offer a full and comprehensive level of support.

As well as building on the support provided in 2011, we will research and test the potential provision of live web chat, visual interactive voice recognition and how to use and respond to social media interactions. We will remain open to further developments in all these areas and will continue to monitor developments in other countries and across other services.

Follow up of non-responding addresses

We will design the census operation to encourage the vast majority of questionnaires to be completed online. As noted above, we will provide support options for those households who need help to complete their census questionnaire.  Where we do not receive a response, as with previous censuses, we will use different strategies to contact addresses and encourage the residents to take part. The precise timing and combination of follow-up methods is under development, but it will include the use of a publicity campaign, reminder letters and visits from census field staff. 

The census field staff and their managers will be told about addresses that have not completed a questionnaire. We will refine and target the follow-up operation, deploying more resource to those areas with lower response rates whilst still ensuring all non-responding addresses are visited. Online collection will also enable up to date information about the location of populations that have not responded. This could be used to further target publicity or community engagement activities. The prioritisation of resource in the field, publicity and community engagement will be key factors in ensuring that we get response where we need it and therefore that the statistical outputs are of the highest quality.

Census staff may need to make multiple visits to non-responding addresses to find out the reason for their non-response. They will work to persuade non-responders to complete their questionnaire and will offer support where it is needed. As time progresses, the emphasis will shift to the legal requirement for completing the census and the penalty for not doing so. Later, a small specialised set of census staff will manage persistent non-compliance.

The use of hand-held electronic devices in the field is being actively considered. If the cost of such devices is viable, these could be used to manage all aspects of communication, including census staff workloads.

Use of administrative data in the census design

We are investigating the potential for increasing the use of administrative data in the design and conduct of the next census. Administrative data is data held by local and national government departments and other public bodies to support and manage their day to day activities. For example, National Records of Scotland (NRS) has produced annual counts of dwellings from council tax data for a number of years and it could potentially contribute to the census coverage estimation and adjustment process.

In addition to the potential use of council tax data, NRS is considering whether access to further types of administrative data could be beneficial. This includes:

  • activity information such as evidence of contact with government agencies to help improve our estimates of the size and geographical location of the population
  • information to supplement the address register such as information on occupancy status 
  • information about characteristics of the population such as ethnicity, income or qualifications to potentially replace or supplement information collected in the census

There are three key areas where administrative data may improve the efficiency, effectiveness and quality of the 2021 Census, However, all options will be thoroughly tested before any decisions are made.

Any use of administrative data in the census would be subject to legal, ethical and privacy considerations. More information will be made available as plans progress.

Census outputs

For 2021, we will seek ways of making outputs available more quickly than in 2011 whilst maintaining the high levels of quality and confidentiality of the information required.

Subject to research and consultation with users, we aim to move away from the traditional high volume of ‘data tables’ and instead will look to make data available in open formats that provide flexibility for users subject to the development of the necessary disclosure processes. As well as enabling users to design and produce their own outputs within a flexible table generator, we plan to produce a small number of pre-tabulated standard outputs. This approach will be consulted upon and would most likely cover most but not all of the current needs for commissioned outputs.

Stakeholder engagement

There are a huge number of stakeholders in who have an interest in the census. They will require different methods and degrees of approach, so different modes of engagement are being developed to reflect this. As in 2011, there is a vast wealth of local knowledge and insight that can be gained from our stakeholders and this will help us plan and target our activity more effectively.

The Scottish Government is a key partner in helping to plan and deliver a primarily online census, especially given their role in promoting and supporting digital participation throughout Scotland.  We are also working with other parts of the public and third sectors to understand how we can deliver a high quality census which meets its objectives and delivers legacy benefits.

Publicising the census

Every census presents a publicity challenge in that it requires reaching and motivating every household to participate. The target audience is effectively everyone in Scotland.

A publicity campaign – likely to include TV, radio, outdoor and online advertising – will be needed in 2021 to raise awareness of the census and to communicate a clear call-to-action to the entire population. With the increasing diversity of our population and the fragmentation and proliferation of media channels it is impossible to reach ‘everyone’ through one channel (although particular channels can still be very effective in reaching specific audiences). As a result, we will need to use a combination of channels to make contact with every household in Scotland. Digital channels will play a more prominent role in 2021; with social media a particular growth channel.

Some households will need more motivation than others to participate. Learning from the 2011 Census, the publicity campaign in 2021 will have an additional focus on specific groups, such as students. Similarly, some audiences will require more help to participate online and the publicity campaign will need to steer people to the support that we make available. Regular user research will inform the design of the campaign and ensure that we give the public both motivation and guidance to participate. 

At an operational level, the publicity campaign will align with census operations milestones including the go-live date of the online questionnaire and the commencement of follow-up activity. In addition, the publicity campaign will need to be flexible enough to be able to respond to up to date information from field operations such as questionnaire online completion rates at both a national and more local level.

The success of the campaign will also depend on building partnerships, particularly with local authorities and community groups. Such partnerships, in combination with paid-for activity, are a modern approach to government campaigns as shared goals and consistent messaging alongside partners will help lead to wider public support.

Census staff/ field-force management

The aims for 2021 include maximising overall return rates and minimising the variation in return rates across geographical areas. To achieve this we will track returns to understand where follow-up activities are required and then the response to those activities.  We will also seek to minimise the effects of digital exclusion by offering help and support in assisting people to complete their census questionnaire via our helpline, by providing local-based support or where necessary, by providing paper questionnaires.

To achieve this, we will need a large number of staff on the ground (our ‘field force’). Our emerging design will influence the number of people working in this field force including the need for flexibility and the emphasis on online participation. We currently anticipate that the number of people required will be less than it was in 2011 but specific roles and structure will be confirmed in due course.