Public sector - understanding equality data collection: main report

This research describes and explores the range of equality and socio-economic disadvantage data collected by public sector organisations. Findings offer insights into what works best in terms of collecting, utilising and safeguarding robust data, highlighting major barriers to its collection or use.

7 Barriers and challenges in collecting equality data

7.1 This section first discusses the barriers and challenges in relation to the collection (and use) of equality data (in general) and then goes on to provide details of barriers and challenges in the collection and use of sex and gender specifically.

7.2 It is important to note that, given the diversity of the data collections explored (and the relatively limited numbers of organisations and collections that have been included in the research), the barriers and challenges identified are at a fairly general level. In addition, a commitment to participants that no organisation or data collection would be identifiable in the report means that the scope for traditional 'subgroup analysis' is limited.[39] It is important to note that these barriers and challenges did not by any means apply to all organisations / data collections included in the research. However, these issues were raised repeatedly across the range of interviews.

7.3 The main barriers and challenges identified related to:

  • The personal and sensitive nature of equality data
  • Practical, operational and / or methodological challenges arising from the context within which data collection is undertaken
  • Difficulties arising from the complexity of defining equality groups using agreed and standard definitions and terminology, linked to difficulties of 'keeping abreast' of developments in this (fast-moving) field
  • Shortcomings in organisational culture, capacity and / or capability.

7.4 Each of these are discussed in greater detail below. These challenges were interrelated and overlapping to a substantial degree, as will be seen from the text.

The personal and sensitive nature of equality data

7.5 The personal and sensitive nature of equality data was said to present challenges for organisations. Participants returned to this theme again and again, expressing the view that applicants / service users / members of the public can be reluctant to provide information about their equality characteristics. Participants suggested that service users may wonder why they are being asked questions which do not directly relate to the service provided; and that some individuals may be concerned that this information might be used to discriminate against them.

7.6 Participants suggested that members of staff can also feel uncomfortable asking people about their protected characteristics because of its personal and sensitive nature - for similar reasons. They may feel the information is irrelevant to decisions about providing a service, or that a service user / member of the public may not wish to answer deeply personal questions about their sexuality or religion.


Equality monitoring can be difficult for people to understand. People don't understand why the organisation is asking what can be regarded as quite personal questions. Even when information is sent out prior to a survey, the level of response can be low.

We are trying hard to increase the diversity of our visitor population. But we have had lots of feedback that asking visitors questions about, for example, their sexual orientation, is off-putting.

7.7 There was also a view among participants that individuals are less likely to disclose personal and sensitive information if they did not trust (i) the organisation asking for the information, or (ii) the rationale presented to them. In some cases (particularly where the collection of the item(s) was mandatory, and when the data collection was an ongoing, administrative collection), discussion focused on the 'best moment' or the 'right time' to collect the equality data. Organisations identified both benefits and challenges of collecting data at the first available opportunity. The main benefit was that early collection of data helped with service planning and offering the most tailored support. However, the challenge was that individuals might find it difficult to understand the rationale for collecting the data before they were fully engaged with the service or policy. Participants explained that where there was an ongoing relationship with a client / service user, it was often possible to collect the information later.


Some people may be reluctant to disclose a disability or their care-experienced status at application, but they may disclose at a later point, and this would then be added to their record. On disability, specifically, there have been some issues about getting people to disclose at first, for fear of discrimination. Often people will tell us once they are in, but they might not tell us about it beforehand.

Non-disclosure initially increased in the wake of the introduction of the DPA 2018 as individuals were on 'high alert' in terms of what they were disclosing. However, this trend reversed as the DPA bedded in and people were more confident, and trusted that if they disclosed sensitive information, their privacy would be safeguarded.

7.8 One participant also raised the issue of 'intersectionality' (the complex inter-connectedness of people's identities and how this relates to discrimination and disadvantage). This was seen to be an important issue for the 'customers' of one public sector organisation who, it was said, do not see themselves in terms of answers to simple 'tick-box' questions, and as a result they simply refuse to answer the questions, or they spoil the form.


Our 'customers' say that intersectionality is not adequately addressed in these questions and that equality monitoring forms are 'reductive'. These individuals do not want to be pigeon-holed on the basis of these kinds of categories; they want the freedom to define a changing identity which is not 'pin-downable' in the way required by an Equality Monitoring Form.

7.9 More generally, participants talked in terms of 'tensions' in relation to the collection of these data, the 'balances which needed to be struck' and the importance that the collection of equality data should be 'proportionate'. These were ongoing issues for many organisations and were constantly under review.


We do not want to burden people by asking them for a lot of detailed personal information. So, we restrict what we collect to something which is proportionate and seen as essential.

Practical, operational and methodological challenges

7.10 The challenges described above in terms of the sensitivity and personal nature of equality data were often compounded by practical or operational challenges related to the context in which the organisation is operating and / or methodological approach used to collect the data.

7.11 For example, the social and emotional context and / or the physical environment within which the data collection takes place is not always conducive to the collection of high-quality (complete and accurate) data. Data collection can take place during an emergency (including a medical emergency or a police incident); outdoors when the weather is inclement (which could be the case for visitor surveys); in busy reception areas or other public areas; in places where there is little privacy (in a home with no access to a private space); when an individual has been bereaved; or where a complaint is being made about something which has been the cause of distress. This was a particular issue for organisations providing 'frontline' services where members of the public may be engaging with organisations in difficult or highly charged situations and obtaining equality information could present significant challenges.

7.12 There may also be very limited time available to complete the data collection - particularly if individuals are also being asked a range of other questions at the same time - for example, in a visitor survey, or during a client / patient assessment interview.


In a 15-minute survey, it is difficult to collect everything you want - especially given the situation where you are 'grabbing' people as they leave the place they have been visiting.

7.13 Participants explained that, in some cases, the data may be collected through observation, rather than through direct questioning, particularly in cases where the individual may be unwell, uncooperative, have communication difficulties, or speak another language. In other cases, information about an individual may be provided by a carer, a family member or other relative, or a friend.

7.14 In some public bodies, equality data is collected by a third party (as explained above in paragraph 6.3, this means it is collected by a partner or external organisation, or by individual(s) contracted to provide services of some type). These third parties do not always work to the same requirements as the organisation itself and / or they may not give the data collection the same priority - particularly if the data collection is not compulsory.

7.15 In addition, a few interviewees mentioned situations where the professional approach adopted could mean that the systematic collection of comprehensive equality data was not always seen as a priority. Indeed, collecting equality information - where it was not regarded as essential to the service being operated or meeting an individual's needs - could be seen as not wholly conducive to the client / professional relationship.

7.16 In terms of the challenges of certain methodological approaches, participants described arrangements in which an individual may apply for a service, a place or a benefit online, but then is asked to complete and submit a separate equality monitoring form by post or email. One organisation noted that applicants in such situations do not often complete or return the form.

7.17 Participants explained that language, communication or literacy difficulties - or differences of interpretation - can also prevent or impede the asking and answering of equality questions. For example:


The information captured across the organisation is pretty standard, and the questions asked should be pretty standard. Staff will follow a protocol in taking information from people, but there are likely to be local variations in this. There will also be sharing of 'best practice'. There will also be individual-level variations, how questions are phrased, what form it is recorded on.

7.18 This study also included at least three organisations which collect equality data about organisations, not just individuals. For example, in two cases, the organisation provides funding to external organisations and collects information about the number of board members and staff in recipient organisations who have certain equality characteristics. Undertaking data collection which relates to organisations rather than individuals is complicated to operationalise, and this information is sometimes not completed well - or indeed, at all.

7.19 Finally, in at least one case the data were collected on paper, but not transferred into an electronic system. This severely limited the extent to which the data could be used.

Lack of standardisation and the pace of change

7.20 There were many examples where organisations described the challenges relating to (i) the lack of standardised approaches, and (ii) the pace of change / the continuous process of review in relation to the collection of equality data.

7.21 Participants in this research highlighted:

  • The lack of a standard set of questions to elicit data about equality characteristics
  • The lack of a standard set of response categories
  • The lack of standardised terminology
  • The lack of a standard set of definitions to underpin the collection of equality characteristics.[40]

7.22 While this presented difficulties for individual organisations in their work to gather equality data, it was also pointed out that this lack of standardisation leads to inconsistencies in approach across the public sector, and a lack of alignment between partner organisations.

7.23 This lack of standardisation related to all protected characteristics and socio-economic disadvantage indicators. However, the challenge that was raised most often related to sex and gender. (See paragraphs 7.31-7.32 below.)

7.24 Participants explained that the knowledge of 'what questions to ask' and 'how to ask them' was not routinely in people's skill sets. Therefore, some type of formal guidance / help with identifying standard questions could be useful. However, at the same time, flexibility would be needed to take account of the context in which the organisation is operating.


Different organisations use different formulations, and it would be great to have somewhere you could go for definitive guidance. But in a way, it is not like that, because each organisation has its own reasons for collecting data in particular ways. Disability is a prime example. So many different approaches / definitions.

7.25 Linked to this lack of standardisation was a widely shared view that the collection of equality data was a 'moving target'. Research participants were aware that this was a continuously evolving field (and some were aware of initiatives such as the Scottish Government Chief Statistician's Working Group on Sex and Gender (see Footnote 41 below), and said it could be difficult to keep abreast of the changes which were happening.

7.26 Some examples of organisational perspectives on this are highlighted below.


A review of the [] Act is being undertaken. It is thought that, following this, data collection forms will have to be redesigned / updated to align with any changes.

Our survey hasn't particularly kept up with our organisation's transgender policy.

We don't think we are keeping up with gender recognition. Goalposts are moving and it is a political minefield.

Organisational culture, capacity and capability

7.27 There was a range of barriers which participants described in relation to organisational culture, capacity and capability. In relation to organisational culture, examples were described in which:

  • Senior management was not focused on, or giving priority to, equality data collection. As described by one contributor 'The equalities remit is often just a small part of somebody's role, and it gets squeezed by other priorities'. Another described the 'organisational inertia' in relation to equality data collection.
  • Restructuring and reorganisation were said by some to have absorbed a lot of resources in recent years, with implications for addressing equality data collection issues.
  • Senior management was seen as unwilling to invest in equality data collection. The consequence of this was that there was no evidence of the differential impact the service was having on its customers, and consequently no rationale for engaging in equality data collection. It was not clear how this cycle could be broken.
  • One organisation was said to focus on issues related to legal compliance only - and did not accept or understand the importance of 'mainstreaming' equality issues.
  • An organisation implemented a monitoring system (to ascertain whether the opportunities offered by the organisation were attracting a diverse range of individuals), but it did not take any action to engage in broader issues - not just whether individuals from various equality groups had participated - but whether longer-term outcomes (like their pay, and promotion) were improved as a result.

7.28 In relation to organisational capacity and capability, participants in some organisations said there was insufficient 'infrastructure' available within the organisation to properly support the collection, processing, storage and use of equality data. The kinds of insufficiencies described included:

  • The absence of an effective, joined up approach to the collection of equality data with appropriate input from managers, equality and diversity staff, IT staff, analysts, etc.
  • Resources not available to undertake data input of paper-based forms
  • Insufficient analytical support to maximise the use of the data which had been collected (this point was mentioned specifically in the context of analysing using an 'intersectionality' approach as well as more generally)
  • No access to support or advice in designing data collection instruments or protocols for data collection
  • Insufficient internal resources to carry out equality data collection resulting in the requirement to use external consultants - who could be very expensive
  • An insufficiently well-developed IT platform to enable data to be processed efficiently
  • Insufficient resource available [in a partner organisation] to get the extracts / downloads that the organisation needs in a useful format
  • Not enough research and analytical capacity / expertise to identify the differential impacts on equality groups.

7.29 (Ongoing) IT development was described as a major issue in some organisations. Participants said that it can require a great deal of both internal and external resources to make changes to IT systems.

7.30 There was a general view that small organisations have more limited capacity to collect data about the equality profile of their users than larger organisations. In larger organisations there could also be challenges - but these tended to relate more to the possibility for 'silo working' and a lack of good communication between, for example, strategic managers, equality leads, analytical staff, administrators, etc.

Barriers and challenges in relation to sex and gender

7.31 As noted above, the sensitivity of the information to be collected, and the lack of standardised approaches presented challenges in collecting data on equality characteristics. However, there was a recurring view among participants that collecting data on sex and gender specifically was especially challenging.

7.32 Sex and its relationship with gender / transgender reassignment, in particular, was mentioned by a range of organisations. Participants in this research acknowledged that simply offering people a binary choice (Male / Female) when they are asked about their sex (or gender) was no longer appropriate. However, in many cases, IT systems and monitoring forms only provided for these two options. Participants suggested that there was a great deal of confusion about terminology and that the two (different) concepts of sex and gender were often 'conflated'. Indeed, it was common for information about 'sex' to be collected under the heading of 'gender'.[41] (Note that Annex 6 provides more comprehensive information on this point.)



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