Jeff French writes: Census 2011 – a case for a social marketing campaign?

Though the act of postal voting and then voting at the polling station on May 6th there will be substantial public involvement voting for a choice of Government.

Next year comes a less talked-about but massively important example of universal public participation in the shape of the 2011 Census.

This may be the last census in its current form, with the possibilities of new technology, rolling collection and data sharing making huge collection exercise like the Census superfluous.

Whatever it’s future from 2021, the findings of the 2011 Census will nevertheless play a major part in setting the public agenda for the next decade. A glance at most statistical reports produced by local authorities and PCTs reveals many future plans which refer to the 9-year-old 2001 census figures as a baseline for debate and justification for action.

The 2011 census will have a vast impact for years to come on local authorities and NHS bodies. Whilst the Office of National Statistics (ONS) will no doubt promote the Census, some authorities will face greater challenges than others in ensuring that all their residents are registered. Often it’s the most disadvantaged people who are under represented this clearly then impacts on the funding that an authority receives. Ensuring that residents complete the 2011 census will therefore have significant financial implications for local authorities – particularly those with large transient and newly arrived populations – for at least the next decade.

The census is an example of a zero-sum game. If a local authority is under-registered, other authorities are likely to benefit from the distribution of resources at a time when those resources will be particularly under pressure.

Thus, local authorities who may face challenges in registering their residents do have a big financial incentive to raise their game on this issue to protect their communities. The general advertising to promote registration that is planned has an important role, but I do not think that it will be enough and would argue there is a clear basis for a proper social marketing programme to encourage and enable more people to register.

The Challenge

If residents fall through the net, they can’t be accounted for in the budget. According to Local Government Association estimate, census registration in 2001 potentially missed an average of 6,628 people for each of the 172 principal upper tier local authorities in England and Wales – many more in larger authorities. Based on average public expenditure figures, an ineffective census operation could therefore cost a local authority around £30 million per annum – £300 million over the life of the census – as well as profoundly affecting service planning and delivery by underestimating the population of many particularly vulnerable communities. This is not a case of ‘having to do more with less’ but ensuring that every penny needed to deliver services is claimed,

One-size-fits-all national advertising and a traditional census task force approach will only go so far in meeting this challenge. Every council needs to ask itself : Do we have the insight and understanding about the people that we might not be able to register easily?

Local authorities across the country are facing up to the same difficulties:

  • Low levels of census returns in areas of transient populations: students, armed forces, seasonal labour, recent immigrants and multiple-occupied dwellings in both inner cities and smaller districts
  • A lack of enumerators with determination and good local knowledge, particularly in known hard-to-count areas
  • Poor estimates and inadequate population data in hard-to-count areas, with council tax and emigration data poor substitutes for accurate census data
  • Low levels of trust in local authorities leading to a reluctance to provide information
  • No response or even a negative response from groups in the community – not necessarily immediately identifiable groups – to generic messages urging people to register

For many local authorities the stakes could be very high. In an era of budget reductions, missing an opportunity to increase government grants through action now could make a vast difference to some of the most vulnerable communities in the country.

A social marketing approach

Evidence from social marketing tells us that not everyone is the same and that different people will respond to different approaches to encourage them to register. Whilst advertising campaigns will work for some, for most people they are just background noise – whilst still others will be turned off by appeals to good citizenship or threats of prosecution.

By understanding the attitudes and values of individuals who are not being counted in a locality, and the particular barriers to census completion that they face, we can develop a social marketing programme that goes beyond the standard social advertising campaigns to engage individuals on their own terms. This could help the ONS and local authorities to understand the narratives and experiences prevailing within different parts of the community and respond in ways that will not be dismissed out of hand.

Social marketing campaigns across a range of public issues have demonstrated that message carriers are crucial: in many cases local people will trust messages from people they already know far more than what their local authority tells them. Peer-to-peer and word-of-mouth communications through the creation of local networks could be quickly established not just for the census, but for other forms of engagement and behavioural change. These could significantly assist in building uptake with hard to reach and hard to engage groups. Research on social marketing projects around the world has also demonstrated that people need to either value something in order to take action or for it to be very easy for them to do, ideally involving no effort, ie default systems. So for some people rewards or incentives might need to be developed , and whatever system is developed it needs to make it easy for people to do the right thing.

So now is the time for every council to begin to draw up a systematic plan to maximize registration with every sub segment of their population. This will involve gathering and analysing insights about what will help and motivate local residents to register and then putting in place a broad range of actions to ensure that an accurate picture of their population is achieved during 2011.

Professor Jeff French is a non-executive Director of The Campaign Company, a professor at Brunel University and a Fellow at Kings College University of London. He founded and established the National Social Marketing Centre in England and currently is chief executive of Strategic Social Marketing Ltd. He will be a keynote speaker at the 2nd World Social Marketing Conference in 2011 in Dublin


Leave a Reply