OPINION22 September 2011

Government social surveys at 70

Opinion

Four articles marking the 70th anniversary of the first UK government social survey. Our writers reflect on the contributions made over the decades, the challenges brought on by austerity and the future for what many consider to be a crucial component of democracy.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the founding of the first government social survey unit. It began life in the spring of 1941 as the Wartime Social Survey. Since then the organisational framework managing these surveys has changed, and has included the Government Social Survey Department, the Office for Population Census and Surveys and most recently the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Just as the way we live our lives has changed, the questions included on social surveys have changed too. The purpose of collecting social survey data has, however, remained broadly the same: to paint a picture of society and to provide robust evidence that can be used for policy development and monitoring. The first surveys were driven by the war effort. For example, in 1941 the Survey of Foundation Garments asked women their attitudes to certain types of underwear and to wearing trousers. While the subject matter may seem trivial nowadays, genuine fears of a shortage of steel, widely used in the manufacturing of women’s supporting underwear at the time, and the effect on women, prompted the Board of Trade to commission the survey. So valuable was it the report concluded that “only with this information can the greatest efficiency in planning be secured and everything done to secure personal welfare of the population”.

In 1941 surveys were still a novelty and most people were happy to support the war effort in any way possible. Less than one per cent of respondents refused to co-operate with government survey staff

Data requirements have obviously changed over the last 70 years and last year the National Statistician was asked by David Cameron to lead the development of measures of national wellbeing. Measuring wellbeing as well as GDP will provide a richer measure of how the country is doing. Indeed the Prime Minister has recognised that this data will help Britain re-evaluate its priorities in life and has suggested that measuring national wellbeing “could give us a general picture of whether life is improving” and “lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile”.

Today the ONS social survey division numbers around 140 research and headquarters staff and approximately 1,200 interviewers within the nationwide field, telephone and port operations. The original Wartime Social Survey, part of the Ministry of Information’s Home Intelligence division, comprised a handful of researchers and only 50 interviewers. In 1941 an early task for the new service was to gain public acceptance of its work. In fact, surveys were still a novelty and most people were happy to support the war effort in any way possible. Despite a media campaign attacking surveys (interviewers were nicknamed Cooper’s Snoopers after the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper) less than one per cent of respondents refused to co-operate with government survey staff.

Achieving high rates of response remains one of the big challenges that all social surveys have to deal with, and although response rates have fallen since, organisations like ONS are embracing technological developments and investigating the efficacy of new approaches, including web-based data collection, as a means of maintaining data quality. Collecting social survey data over the internet will allow people to respond easily in their own time as well as help organisations like ONS meet the challenges posed by reduction in budgets.

Given the current economic difficulties that face this country and countries around the world, social survey data, as it was during the war years, has perhaps never been more important

It is also interesting to reflect on the breath and methodological rigour of government social surveys, then and now. Compared to surveys today where a single questionnaire will carry questions relating to a diverse range of topics and themes, the surveys of the 1940s had a very narrow focus and answered clearly defined research questions. Also, methods to take probability samples were still in their infancy and in the early 1940s the majority of surveys used quota sampling, where probability sampling is the norm on government surveys nowadays.

Given the current economic difficulties that face this country and countries around the world, social survey data, as it was during the war years, has perhaps never been more important. Measuring the impact of the economic crisis and recession on all facets of society and social life is essential as policy-makers attempt to prioritise and target resources efficiently. While there are challenges ahead, meeting the information requirements of governments, academics, charities and other organisations will provide interesting opportunities for all those who work on government social surveys, and will also enable the continued development of social surveys.

  • Click here for part two: Sue Duncan on why policy research is more important than ever

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