Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


25 JUNE 2009

  Q1 Chairman: May I extend a very warm welcome to our witnesses this morning. I hope the other two witnesses do not mind if I say an especially warm welcome to Karen Dunnell who has become Dame Karen Dunnell since we last met and richly deserved. We congratulate you very much. Then we have Glen Watson, the Census Director and Graham Emmons from the contractor Lockheed Martin UK. Thank you all for coming. I do not know whether you were expecting to say something by way of introduction but let me ask a general question which will give you a chance to say what you were going to say, if you were going to say it, but if you were not going to say it, it will not matter because you can say something else. Here we are talking about the build-up and preparations to the 2011 Census. You have been working on this for some time, you have issued a White Paper about it and you have run test exercises. What I should quite like to start off with is an overview. Given all that background, where are we now in terms of this process?

Dame Karen Dunnell: The Census is a very long-term project and the largest statistical project that we do in the UK. At the moment it is going extremely well. It is being planned in great detail. As you say, we have done the test; we have also awarded all the key contracts for the work because the contractors are working on the rehearsal, which is the next big milestone, taking place in three local authorities in the autumn. Once the results of the rehearsal are assessed, it is full steam ahead for March 2007.

  Q2  Chairman: Let me just ask this question which is designed to provoke you. I suppose I am looking at Lockheed Martin in particular. How can we be sure that we are not going to have a great catastrophe on our hands as we have had in some other projects? This is a mega project, big money, hugely intricate organisation. You are doing all the IT stuff, are you not? It is not unknown for these things to go wrong. What I want to know is how you can assure us that all that is not going to go wrong. If things do go wrong, who is going to be responsible?

  Mr Emmons: First of all, we have a huge amount of experience of doing censuses, having done the US Census in 2000, we did the UK Census in 2001 and we did the Canadian Census in 2006. We are currently working on the US Census for 2010 as well as the Canadian Census for 2011. So we have a huge breadth of knowledge and experience. By far the largest part of the work is processing all of the paper questionnaires and in that regard our system has been developed and enhanced literally over a ten-year period and very, very well proven. That is very well established technology. In everything we do a huge amount of independent checking verification. Right now we are working through very detailed tests and acceptance for rehearsal and the rehearsal itself will provide a lot of assurances. We have plans for compliance with business continuity disaster recovery procedures, again independently vetted and verified so everything that could go wrong is being assessed and analysed and we get to trial run that during the rehearsal.

  Q3  Chairman: That sounds like a pretty good guarantee but we will come back to that a bit later because somebody will want to ask you about the Gateway Reviews. The costings seem to have gone through the roof, do they not, compared with 2001? Are they not one third higher in real terms? People might wonder why that could be.

  Dame Karen Dunnell: Yes, they are one third higher in real terms and there are several reasons for that. One is that of course society has become more complex and we are putting several things into place which cost more money to deal with that. The first thing is paying much more attention to having a really good address register. Because we are adopting a post-out method for over 90% of addresses in England and Wales, work on the address register is absolutely fundamental. Also, because there is a very, very large user demand for extra questions, we actually have a longer questionnaire this time which adds quite considerably to the cost. We have four pages rather than three pages of questions for each individual which cost more. We are also putting a lot more effort into the field operations, having a system to monitor what is going on in the field in real time, which will mean that we can get a better response, particularly in difficult areas. Also, we are spending more resource this time on things like engagement at local level with community groups and local authorities and, of course, because we have very many more groups now in our society, we have to spend more on supporting people who do not speak English. There is a whole set of reasons why the costs have gone up again.

  Q4  Chairman: Does it mean that we are going to get the equivalent additional value in output terms or is it simply that it costs more to do the same thing for the reasons you have described?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: There is a little bit of both. It certainly costs more to do because of the reasons I have given, but last time we were criticised by several local authorities for not getting their estimates right. We had to do an awful lot of work afterwards to put that right and that is exactly what we are trying to avoid. The key purpose of the Census is to get a very, very accurate population estimate at local and national level and that is our key goal.

  Q5  David Heyes: This is quite a massive outsourcing as far as ONS is concerned. I think it is true to say that it is bigger than anything you have ever done before outsourcingwise.

  Dame Karen Dunnell: Last time we did outsource all the processing to Lockheed Martin and this time we decided, because of the success of that and because we regard it as providing best value for money, to outsource rather more this time.

  Q6  David Heyes: Is it true that there is experience within ONS of managing large-scale outsourced contracts?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: Yes.

  Q7  David Heyes: Can you describe to us how that works?

  Mr Watson: Yes, certainly there is experience within the Office and where we are short of experience we bring in consultants and contractors to assist us and to make sure that we can manage these contracts very well.

  Q8  David Heyes: So you have contractors monitoring contractors.

  Mr Watson: The contracts each require a contract manager once they are placed and some of those contract managers at the moment are contractors themselves. That is just a mechanism for bringing in the best expertise possible. All of the contracts that we have placed so far have been done on time roughly and within budget, which is quite remarkable. So far the contracts which have been placed, including the Lockheed Martin UK contract are going very well and all of the milestones are on track and things are progressing very well. Some of those contracts still have to be placed and there are various procurement processes which are still underway, but we are confident that we will have all the contracts in place that we need for the October rehearsal and then by the end of this year we will have all the contracts that we need in place for the 2011 Census.

  Q9  David Heyes: I guess perhaps the second largest contract is the Capita contract for recruitment and training of staff. The numbers have been differently reported, depending on where you look. What are the numbers of enumerators who will be recruited and trained through Capita?

  Mr Watson: The total number we expect to pull in is around 30,000 to 35,000. That is down from 2001 for various reasons which I would be happy to share with you. As you say, the contract with Capita for recruitment, payroll and training of that temporary field force was placed in March this year and is progressing well.

  Q10  David Heyes: On the face of it, it looks odd that the numbers should decline so drastically and that enumerators should be down so drastically in a more complex environment. When costs are going up significantly, you would expect that that level of reduction in enumerators, which is potentially one of your biggest costs, would save money. Those seem to be inconsistent. Can you explain that?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: The key reason for that is because we believe and we have tested and proved that the post-out method actually works. Last time all the questionnaires were hand delivered by enumerators and people were asked to post them back. That was extremely successful so this time we have tested the post-out as well, which if you do it avoiding the most difficult places we have shown in the tests that works very well. So you do not need to employ lots and lots of enumerators to deliver the forms. Because we are going to have a much more sophisticated monitoring system, we can deploy the enumerators we do have in a much more focused way.

  Mr Watson: In 2001 the bulk of the effort of the 70,000 enumerators was devoted to delivering the Census questionnaires. In 2011, far and away the biggest proportion of the effort of the 35,000 enumerators will be to follow up non-response. In fact, in response to the quality problems which were well reported after the 2001 Census, what we will be doing is putting in something like three times as much person power to follow up non-response in the field. So although the number looks smaller, there is actually an increase in effort in the important follow-up period.

  Q11  David Heyes: I am always a little anxious when I hear of Capita being involved in projects like this, especially new projects. Rightly or wrongly they have an unfortunate record. It is only two months since Capita sent out a letter to the parents of a child who had died complaining about their non-attendance at school. It was not Capita who apologised for that awful thing; it was the school that had to make the apology. That is a huge leap to the scale of what is going on in ONS but how are you going to deal with a potential failure of that sort and the risk. What sort of failsafe do you have?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: Because the Census is a very, very large project, we have identified a large number of risks which we are managing in the normal way. Obviously I do not know anything much about your particular episode, but what we have to do and what I am sure the contractors also do and we will insist that they do is identify all the possible risks and we will manage them in the best way that we can. Of course, when things like that do happen, at the end of the day the National Statistician is responsible and we have to manage that with the media. We are working much more effectively, identifying risks, having much tighter management arrangements, so that we can actually mitigate those risks much better than before.

  Q12  David Heyes: I used that illustration really because it does fit; people are very sensitive about revealing this personal information, especially in the light of events over the last couple of years where large-scale leakage of information has occurred. That is going to make the operation of this Census more difficult than any previous one. That kind of sensitivity or potentially lack of sensitivity could become a major issue. Another angle on that would be concerns about the involvement of another major US defence contractor handling this kind of sensitive information.

  Dame Karen Dunnell: There are two separate things there. On the first one, the Census, we are not approaching individuals. We do not actually have a list of individuals, we are approaching addresses and it is up to the householders at the address to fill in all the details about the individuals who live there. We are not running the kind of risk that you identified of actually writing to somebody who has died. That is not a risk: it is all address based. That is the first thing. Of course there will still be issues around that. All the security arrangements and all the communication about how secure and confidential the information is that people provide are essential elements of our publicity work that we will have to do, which of course we will also be rehearsing in the autumn. That is a very, very important part of the work. Do you want me to come onto the next part about Lockheed Martin and the Patriot Act?

  Q13  David Heyes: Yes.

  Dame Karen Dunnell: We have assured that US Security Services cannot obtain Census data and that has been done in several ways. No US firms will have access to Census data. The contract is with Lockheed Martin UK, so that protects all of that. Also, there are very complex and firm security assurances that anybody working on the Census will have to sign and those things are built into all the contracts that we let and of course we have a 200-year history of doing censuses and making sure that those data provided are actually only used for statistical purposes. It is a very, very challenging part of what we have to do.

  Q14  David Heyes: Does what you have just said amount to a guarantee of no leaks of sensitive personal data during the Census process? Does it amount to a guarantee that it will not go wrong?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: It is impossible to guarantee that an individual form could not get lost for some reason. It is impossible to provide a 100% guarantee but we have put in place everything to hold the information that we have securely and we will also, (and we are planning at the moment) do an independent review of all the security and confidentiality arrangements to reassure the public in advance that everything possible is being done.

  Q15  Chairman: Just on the post-out issue, because obviously this is a major new component of what is happening, I think I am right in saying that when you did the test in 2007 the effect of posting out most forms was that you said the completion rate would fall by two point eight percentage points. I should quite like to know why you felt a fall of that kind was worth it in terms of the process; we are not going to go into the questions but not least because you rejected the income question on the basis of that 2007 test. Again, that was only because there was a drop of two point seven percentage points. What I really want to know is, if one drop got it out, why did one drop keep the process in?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: The drop in the postal thing one can compensate for by sending enumerators round. We cannot compensate for the effect of the income question; that is lost for ever as it were.

  Mr Watson: Yes, the money saved by adopting a post-out model and contracting with the Royal Mail for delivery of questionnaires allows us to put more effort into the follow-up operation and that transfer of resource allows us the opportunity to compensate for that drop in response rate.

  Q16  Chairman: So if you got a really serious drop in the response rate, even beyond what the tests suggested, you are saying that all you would do is put more people in to do follow up work. Is that right?

  Mr Watson: Yes. Of course the test did not test the internet collection option either, so that is another mechanism which allows us to get some additional response from people who might not otherwise have done so. Yes, that is right broadly. Previously, we put three times the effort into the follow-up operation that we did in 2001, so we felt that was recoverable. The income question is rather different. It was not just the overall drop in response to the income question; it was the drop in quality and the drop in completion for those people who did respond and also through our testing, through our feedback, the extent to which people objected to the question. There were other considerations on the income question.

  Q17  Chairman: How much are you going to save by sending it out as opposed to delivering it?

  Mr Watson: I believe that the figure we calculated at the time was of the order of £20 million. That is a figure we would probably want to go away and check.

  Q18  Chairman: So it is not an entirely reliable figure.

  Mr Watson: I am just saying that I do not have it at my fingertips.

  Chairman: We need then to think about how this sending out is going to work and that means thinking about this address register.

  Q19  Mr Prentice: The census form goes to individual addresses. Will there be someone, a designated person in each household who will have to fill in the form, who will have legal responsibility, as is the case with electoral registration?

  Dame Karen Dunnell: Yes, the householder.

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