Person carrying out a survey with a participant

Person carrying out a survey with a participant

Ensuring “everyone in society counts and is counted”: the role of data in tackling inequality

Published 26/08/2022   |   Last Updated 26/08/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

Data plays a crucial role in understanding the needs and circumstances of different groups of people. It can inform policy development and allows decision-makers to measure, monitor and evaluate interventions, and helps others to scrutinise and hold them to account.

This article highlights the important role data plays in tackling inequalities. It examines the barriers in collecting data and considers recent developments to achieve better, more robust equality data.

The role of equality data: what are the gaps?

The pandemic shone a light on both the need for good quality data and the gaps. A report into the impact of the virus on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups stated that:

In light of Covid-19, the lack of or poor quality of ethnicity data has resulted in poor health decisions, and BAME communities face a higher risk of catching and dying from the disease.

In 2020 the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee voiced concerns about the poor quality of equality data available in Wales. It recommended the Welsh Government:

improve data gathering and publication on coronavirus cases and health outcomes disaggregated by sex, ethnicity, disability and key worker status [including] identifying alternative methods of collection and new data sources.

Equality data can highlight where inequalities lie, and where inequalities are at their greatest. To understand inequalities it’s crucial to collect the right data, from the right people in the right way. When there are issues with data collection, whether there’s an absence of data or the quality of the data are poor, this can make it difficult to identify the outcomes for particular groups, or sub-sections of the population.

Intersectional approaches to data can also help identify “inequality within and between groups of people based on the way multiple facets of an individual's identity interact”.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) established an Inclusive Data Taskforce in October 2020 to explore whether the UK is reflective of all, so “everyone in society counts and is counted and no one is left behind”. Following its study the taskforce concluded that:

Some groups or characteristics are missing entirely from the data, for some groups there are insufficient data, and for some the data are not of good enough quality.

The taskforce voiced concerns that these data gaps often include the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Why do gaps in equality data exist?

Addressing data gaps can be challenging. One of the key barriers identified by the Inclusive Data Taskforce was a general sense of distrust in government and the statistics it produces, which in turn has a negative impact on participation.

Research commissioned by the Scottish Government found that the personal and sensitive nature of equality data can also present challenges, especially when it is not clear why these questions are being asked.

Other barriers include:

  • A lack of common standards can make it difficult to examine groups in detail and compare data across different areas. Inconsistencies can arise in the way data are collected according to a particular group, for instance the use of terms such as disability and ethnic origin.
  • Small sample sizes and a lack of disaggregated data can impact the granularity of the analysis, and can mean entire groups of people are invisible in the data. This also hinders the ability to undertake intersectional analysis.
  • A lack of capacity and capability can impact on organisations’ ability to collect equality data, analyse and publish data.

Opportunities to improve equality data

The first 2021 census results were published in June 2022. The Census provides one of the most valuable sources of inclusive data, but the quality of the data declines as it moves further away from the census year.

The ONS is currently working on transforming the current system by putting administrative data, which can include information created when people interact with public services, such as schools, the NHS, or the benefits system at the core of population, migration and social statistics systems. It is hoped that this will “improve the inclusivity, quality, frequency, relevance, coherence, accessibility and timeliness of these core statistics”.

Alongside this, the Welsh Government has also adopted a targeted approach by establishing Equality, Race and Disability Evidence Units. Created earlier this year, they will:

address ongoing evidence needs relating to equalities and socioeconomic disadvantage. This will include evidence that considers where experiences and backgrounds intersect which can intensify barriers for individuals.

Discussing the progress of the data units, in June the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, told a Senedd Committee that staff are now in place and the data will “enable us to respond in terms of our public services”.

Does equality data need to be all about the numbers?

Given the complexity and intersectionality of issues affecting people’s lives, statistical data on its own can’t provide a robust picture of people’s lived experience.

The use of data derived from lived experience or qualitative analysis has been integral to the development of a number of Welsh Government strategies, for example the development of both the Anti-racist Wales Action Plan and the LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales involved people with a lived experience. The importance of lived experience evidence is also a key part of the data units’ role.

Welcoming this progress, in its 2022 ‘State of the Nation’ report. Chwarae Teg said that this work should be accompanied by training to ensure “everyone involved in making decisions about spending and public policy to embed intersectional, equalities analysis into all that they do”.

Considering some of the actions needed to address the challenges identified in its annual report, Chwarae Teg also hosted a discussion about the role of data in tackling equalities and looked at further opportunities to address data gaps in Wales.

The event highlighted the importance of collecting better, more robust equality data as well as ensuring that data is accessible to all through easy read/simplified formats. It was argued that while positive progress has been made, there are still opportunities to work proactively and think differently about how data are collected in the future.

Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament