2021 Census Proposals Document

Information on the Registrar General’s proposals for the design and conduct of the 2021 Census in Northern Ireland.

This section sets out the key objectives and design elements proposed for the 2021 Census in Northern Ireland.

Subject to legislative approval, it is proposed that the next census in Northern Ireland will be taken on 21 March 2021.  We have consulted widely with census users and other stakeholders in planning the design of the 2021 Census. Lessons have been learned both from the 2011 Census and international census experience. This has helped shape these detailed proposals for the conduct of the 2021 Census.

Further information on the proposed design and implementation of the 2021 Census can be found in the Key elements of the 2021 Census section.

Key Strategic Objectives

The key strategic objectives for the 2021 Census are:

  • to provide high quality, value-for-money, fit-for-purpose statistics that meet user needs, and which are consistent, comparable and accessible across the UK
  • to protect, and be seen to protect confidential personal census information
  • to deliver a high quality 2021 online census data collection operation
  • to maximise overall response rates and minimise differences in response rates in specific areas and among particular population groups
  • to secure public and user confidence in the final results and deliver them in a timely manner
  • to encourage wider use and exploration of census results to facilitate greater benefits from census outputs

Shaping the high-level design and content

We have considered national and international good practice in census design and content and have consulted widely on the questionnaire content with formal advisory committees, topic-related working groups and via a formal public consultation.

The proposed design and content of the 2021 Census has been shaped by:

  • successes and lessons learned from the 2011 Census
  • developments and lessons learned in international census taking
  • requirements from the user community about the types, quality, frequency and detail of outputs required
  • changes in technology, in particular, the opportunities offered by the internet
  • changes in the way the public interacts with government digitally, enabling a move away from a traditional paper-based census
  • improvements in administrative data sources, giving the potential for their increased use in the production of official statistics
  • the continued and ongoing need to make the most effective use of public money

Key design elements and innovations

The key design elements proposed for the 2021 Census are:

  • for the first time, the census will be primarily online, with around 90% of households receiving an initial contact letter enclosing a unique access code
  • paper questionnaires will be provided for those unable or unwilling to complete the census online
  • the 2021 Census questionnaire will be no longer, in terms of questions, than the 2011 Census questionnaire
  • targeted follow-up of non-responding households through reminder letters and house calls by field staff
  • a full range of support services including face-to-face assistance, a contact centre that will provide guidance and help via telephone and broadcast advice including through social media channels
  • further use will be made of administrative data to support the collection and processing of census data, and the production of outputs
  • stringent confidentiality and security procedures will be put in place to protect census data
  • all local census data will be processed by NISRA
  • the statistical outputs from the census will be designed to meet user requirements, and dissemination will be to a pre-arranged timetable

Proposed topics and questions

Topics proposed for the 2021 Census are those that have a strong and clearly defined user need and can be expected to produce reliable and accurate data without undue burden on the public. NISRA carried out a public consultation in 2015 which asked users for their views and evidence on the topics which they felt needed to be covered in the 2021 Census. 

Users indicated an ongoing need for the vast majority of topics covered in the 2011 Census as well as a range of requirements for additional topics.  In coming to a set of proposed questions it was important to balance the need for change against continuity and the burden on the public. Three broad sets of evaluation criteria (covering user requirements, operational requirements and other considerations) were used to assess the evidence put forward by users and are broadly comparable to those used during the development of the 2011 Census questionnaire.

As a result, it is proposed to ask the following new questions:

  • a household question on renewable energy systems
  • an individual question on sexual orientation
  • an individual question on apprenticeships

Census-type statistics will also be produced on former members of the UK armed forces – either using historical administrative data on UK armed forces veterans or via a question on the questionnaire.

It is proposed that the following questions from the 2011 Census are amended:

  • an extended question on Irish and Ulster-Scots to gather frequency of use of these languages
  • an extended question on the nature of long-term health conditions, to include Autism and Asperger syndrome
  • alterations to the ethnicity question including new tick-boxes for Roma and Filipino
  • alterations to the question on the date of arrival for individuals born outside Northern Ireland
  • alterations to simplify the questions on qualifications

Some minor amendments are proposed for a number of other 2011 Census questions to ensure that they reflect current user need.

It is proposed to exclude the following questions which were asked in 2011:

  • the household question on self-contained accommodation
  • the household question on the number of rooms
  • the three individual questions on short-term migration
  • the individual question on voluntary work

Further information on the proposed questions and the criteria used to determine them can be found in chapter 3 of the 2021 Census Proposals Document.

Census rehearsal

A rehearsal for the 2021 Census is planned for October 2019.  This will be an end-to-end test of systems and processes in specific locations to ensure readiness for the census in 2021.  The rehearsal will help ensure that all elements of the field operation and supporting public interface services (for example, online help facilities and contact centre) are fit-for-purpose, and the collected information will be used to assure the performance of key parts of the data processing system developed by NISRA.  After the rehearsal, there will be an opportunity to finalise plans for the 2021 Census.

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