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.

8 Enablers and facilitators in collecting equality data

8.1 This section discusses enablers and facilitators in collecting and using high-quality equality data. Some research participants described recent efforts undertaken by their organisation to develop and improve their collection and use of equality data. These efforts were spurred both by policies or programmes within their own organisation and by external drivers or factors. Some participants also shared their thoughts about what could help their organisation to develop and / or make better use of their equality data collections.

8.2 These experiences and views are discussed below under the following headings:

  • Mainstreaming equality
  • The importance of being clear about the purpose of collecting data
  • The importance of training (for staff and third-party data handlers)
  • Data collection methods that work
  • Building data management and analytical capacity
  • Improving guidance and developing networks for support.

Mainstreaming equality

8.3 Some participants in this study highlighted the importance of their organisation's efforts to 'mainstream' equality. There was no standard approach or model for this, but there was a wide range of suggestions for how this agenda could be advanced. These involved decisions about organisational structures, training and leadership. Participants also emphasised the importance of taking specific steps to change organisational culture and behaviour.

8.4 In some cases, these efforts were tied to external reporting requirements - for example, having to produce statistical returns for government, or demonstrating progress towards outcomes under award schemes.[42]

8.5 In many - if not most - of the organisations included in the research, equality issues were under active consideration and work was ongoing to encourage diversity in decision-making and to reduce inequalities in service delivery. In particular, the requirement for all public sector bodies to produce an Equality Mainstreaming Report on a regular basis reinforces a strong emphasis on the development of equality outcomes.

8.6 Key staff (individually or collectively) often played important roles in championing the equality agenda within organisations. For example, equality and diversity teams, internal equality networks, and research and analytical staff were all said to have been instrumental in previous or ongoing work to improve the collection and use equality data. (Although there was also at least one organisation that had decided not to appoint an Equality Officer because they wanted to create a culture in the organisation where everyone brought an 'equality lens' to the work they are doing.)


We have spent a lot of time relaunching our 'Equality Forum' to make sure it really is diverse and that it has real influence in organisational decision-making.

Our Board takes a close interest in looking at the profile of applicants and whether they are representative of the wider population.

The importance of being clear about the purpose of collecting data

8.7 Section 7 highlighted the perception that some participants had that service users / clients / patients / members of the public did not always understand why they were being asked to provide information about their equality characteristics. Some participants suggested that this lack of understanding was often linked to distrust - and could result in unwillingness to provide information about equality characteristics when requested. There was a suggestion that people are more willing to respond to personal questions if they see them as relevant, or they see the potential benefit of doing so (if they might get assistance, or if it might have a bearing on their case).

8.8 In the main, organisations that were collecting high-quality equality data with good response rates had invested time and effort in developing clear communication with their customers. For example, they provided a short explanation, in plain English, about why they were asking for this information, what the information would be used for, and how the respondent's privacy in relation to the data would be protected - in line with the requirements and principles of the DPA 2018.

8.9 Organisations that were managing high-quality data collections understood the importance of developing trust with their customers. Part of this process involved explaining to their customers how their data were being used to improve aspects of the organisation's service.


We carry out a survey among leaders in our area of work. This group used to routinely respond to the equality questions in our survey by writing in 'This is not about gender / disability / race / sexual orientation, etc.' rather than simply ticking the 'prefer not to say' box. However, attitudes seem to be shifting and they understand now why it's important and will disclose their equality characteristics. This is, I think, because more trust has been built around the collection of equality data.

The importance of training for staff and third-party data handlers

8.10 Organisations that had high-quality equality data collections had also invested time in training staff and third-party data handlers to collect the data. This includes the development of guidance, training materials, and 'scripts' that staff collecting the data can refer to when speaking to customers. Examples were also given where organisations had introduced training about 'unconscious bias' into their staff induction programmes and staff were given training (and refresher training) specifically about how to collect equality data from their customers.


Work is ongoing to improve understanding of what information should be collected, what it is used for, why it is important, etc. Although the emphasis of this is on improving operational practice and the quality of the interactions with individuals involved, it should also improve data quality. Probationers are being given updated training, and existing staff will be given refresher training.

8.11 Where third-party service providers were collecting the data, payments for services were in some cases linked to completion of the equality data monitoring forms.


Completion of the Equality Monitoring Form is mandatory. It must be completed by all participants. Our external service providers cannot make a financial claim on a programme without the paper Equality Monitoring Form being completed, and the information entered into the system (electronically) for every individual. Individuals have the option to select 'prefer not to say' if they do not wish to disclose their equality information. However, we communicate clearly to participants and service providers that (i) it is important for us to understand who is using our services so that services can be tailored to the needs of the participants, and (ii) it is ultimately beneficial to our customers if we can identify any groups who are under-represented or face additional barriers to accessing our programmes - so that steps can be taken to improve access.

8.12 More generally, there was a recognition that some - perhaps many - of those involved in frontline service delivery were not well versed in relation to social and cultural issues which might be important in the delivery of a service.

Data collection methods that work

8.13 Organisations that were able to collect equality data directly from their customers through an online data collection form generally reported higher-quality, more complete data - although as the example given above indicates, paper completion of forms can also work well where there is a commitment (or requirement) by those distributing the forms to (i) collect them, and (ii) enter them into a database.

8.14 One organisation in the study had recently been through a process to make it mandatory for their customers to complete an equality monitoring form as part of an online application process (which most of their customers were already using). Previously, a voluntary approach had resulted in fewer than 5% completing the form. The new process involved integration of the equality monitoring form into the online application process so that people had to reply to the questions before submitting their application. At the same time, a 'prefer not to say' option was included for all the equality questions. Since this new process was introduced, the organisation has had a 100% response rate to their equality questionnaire from all online applicants (with only a relatively small proportion selecting 'prefer not to say').

8.15 Some participants highlighted other benefits of collecting data online, including that:

  • People with online accounts can update their own information (recognising that people's equality characteristics may change over time)
  • Data submitted online is preferable to that collected via an intermediary, or through observation, because of the increased privacy it allows the customer
  • It is more cost-effective and efficient to collect data online - there is no time lag and no costs relating to data entry
  • Online data collection can be combined with complex data entry checks, which ensure the final dataset is more (logically) consistent.

Building capacity for data management, analysis and reporting

8.16 Section 7 discussed the barriers that some organisations reported in relation to better collection, and making better use of the equality data they collect. However, in many of the organisations, there were ongoing efforts to continuously improve data collection, processing and analysis. The development of new IT systems and platforms incorporating better online data collection facilities, improved data cleaning, and enhanced analytical capability were all mentioned in a wide variety of contexts.

8.17 Some of the public sector organisations involved in this study had large teams of highly skilled data managers and analysts at their disposal. These teams were responsible for producing regular internal and external reports (including reports designated as national or official statistics). Inevitably, organisations with this type of capacity had good systems in place to collect, process, analyse and report their equality data collections.

8.18 There was a range of concrete examples where services or policies had been developed and changed as a consequence of the equality data which had been collected and analysed. This was described as creating a 'virtuous circle' whereby the demonstration of potential benefits to the organisation of collecting and using the data could lead to improved collection and use.


Previous analysis has suggested that there may be an issue of take-up amongst younger age groups, and so [organisation] has put effort into targeting publicity and literature at younger people.

We are aware of the need to improve how we use the data, how to make the best of it. We are trying to get better at analysing data. With regard to [service area], we need to be able to drill down and look at the success of different interventions / to know what makes a difference.

Improving guidance and developing networks for support

8.19 Organisations with high-quality data collections - and those who wanted to improve their data collections - generally supported the idea of improving guidance and developing networks for support. There was a range of suggestions about how this could be taken forward, including through:

  • Better standardisation and coordination of equality data collection - both within and across organisations. This was seen as a key issue in terms of improving the understanding of the experience of different equality groups across the full range of public services. There was frequent reference to the Census 2011 questions, and whether these should provide the standard that all public sector bodies use for collecting equality data. Some organisations said that they were, in fact, using the census questions in their own equality monitoring form. (However, upon examination of the data collections, it was clear that some of these were using variations on the census questions.)
  • Establishing and / or participating in equality fora. There is a variety of 'equality fora' in place, both internal and external to organisations, which were reported to be a source of information, support and guidance. These can be important drivers for change. However, not all the organisations participating in this study had the capacity to take part in external equality fora.
  • Developing central support and resources. There was a suggestion that it could be helpful to have one (nationally coordinated) 'go to' place for guidance and support.
  • Making use of external expertise. Some organisations reported working with other equality groups such as Stonewall and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to improve their approach to collecting equality data.



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