The civil society data gap matters – and this is how we fill it

Civil society is a vital part of our lives, but we know relatively little about the health of the sector. Ed Humpherson makes the case for taking action now to ensure policymakers have the data they need to better support – and work with – civil society in the future
Charities were affected by lockdowns too. Photo: Alamy

By Ed Humpherson

19 Oct 2021

The furlough scheme was one of the unalloyed successes of the UK’s response to the pandemic. It was designed for the private sector and its triumph in navigating shifting circumstances for businesses and meeting their changing needs was borne out in the jobs saved. Unemployment peaked at 5.2%, far short of the 8.5% reached during the worst of the financial crisis.

Data about the scheme and other business support schemes was available swiftly and comprehensively. This was central to the government’s nimble response. As an example, the ONS’s Business Impact of Covid-19 Survey told us on a fortnightly basis how many real estate businesses had staff on furlough, how long their cash reserves would last and how their profits were faring. This sort of information enables policymakers to see quickly where problems lie and where policy interventions may be needed.

Yet, as an illuminating new report from Pro Bono Economics shows, this relative abundance of data disguises a gap – one that has always been there, but was laid bare by the pandemic.

The gap concerns civil society – the web of charities, community organisations, social enterprises and other civic bodies. We all know these groups played a crucial role in communities across the UK during the pandemic. Yet we have little clue about how these organisations were impacted, including the number of civil society employees that were furloughed, how many groups faced growing demand for support, or the impact of lockdown on their finances. Indeed, as PBE’s report points out, the latest comprehensive data set on the voluntary sector, published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations last month, covers the period before the pandemic even started.

We are told constantly that we live in an age of data abundance. The new plan for government reform places far greater emphasis on data than any previous iteration of public service reform. In fact, the Declaration on Government Reform, signed by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary in June, states: “We will put data at the heart of our decision-making, learning explicitly from the approach we have taken in responding to COVID-19.”

But when it comes to civil society, data primacy gives way to data scarcity. We do not have comprehensive data on how charities fared during the pandemic (though there have been several good sector-led surveys, including one by PBE itself). Nor do we know much about the demography of charities and civil society bodies – how these organisations are formed and close. My organisation, the Office for Statistics Regulation, has argued that business demography should be regarded as a key economic indicator. We believe it does not live up to its potential, but despite our critique, the data on business demography represents an embarrassment of riches in comparison to the dearth of timely data on civil society organisations.

This all matters. We have seen in the pandemic how data has become vital, not just to policymakers – those who are making decisions on lockdowns, social distancing, testing, and vaccinations. It also matters to ordinary people. As the OSR’s report on lessons learned from the pandemic shows, we have seen an unprecedented public engagement with data – with a record 76.5 million hits on the UK coronavirus dashboard in just 24 hours during the peak of the third lockdown.

Civil society is important to policy and important to citizens. For policymakers, civil society acts as a glue that holds communities together. It is an essential building block for societal wellbeing. For citizens, the narrative is less fanciful: people can plainly see the tremendous work done by civil society. Many of us donate or volunteer our time, and many more benefit directly from the work these organisations do. But for citizens and policymakers alike, the absence of data about civil society means there is a significant gap in our understanding of what is happening, how organisations are faring, and where resources are needed most.

The good news is that PBE’s new report makes a series of recommendations to fill this gap. I am particularly supportive of the recommendation that there should be more accessible, machine-readable data formats on civil society organisations (so you don’t have to trawl through hundreds of PDFs to get an aggregate picture). PBE also makes a persuasive argument for comprehensive statistical summaries of civil society in the national accounts, known in official circles as ‘satellite accounts’. These recommendations would help to get detailed, timely data on the sector into the hands of policymakers, so they can be more responsive to changing circumstances. Taking up the recommendations would also enable government to develop a long-term strategy to unlock the full potential of the sector.

But perhaps even more than this, the paucity of data about civil society tells us something about where it sits in our national and political consciousness. Civil society is often considered last, reduced to an afterthought, and viewed as a residual. The fact it is so often overlooked explains why there persists a gap in data collection that blinds us to the contribution made by close to half a million civil society organisations. And yet, the fact it is so poorly represented in national data sets also helps explain why it is so often overlooked. Filling this gap will enable us to better recognise the fundamental role played by civil society. It will help policymakers to make more rounded, evidence-based decisions – informed by the contribution of civil society – on the likes of national wellbeing, levelling up and all manner of key policy goals. And it will show citizens how the civil society organisations they know and love are recognised and valued by those in government.

Ed Humpherson is director general, Office for Statistics Regulation and trustee, Pro Bono Economics

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