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.

9 Views on making equality data collection mandatory

9.1 There was a range of views in relation to the question of whether equality data collection should be made mandatory. Whilst some participants were open to this suggestion and / or welcomed a move in this direction, others were more sceptical and had reservations and concerns of various types. Whether participants were in favour or not, a requirement for additional resources was identified, if this option were to be pursued. The main perspectives are elaborated below.

9.2 Participants referred to the DPA 2018 in two main ways in relation to this question as follows:

  • There was widespread support for the requirement - if mandatory data collection were to be pursued - of offering a 'prefer not to say' option in relation to individual equality questions. This was seen as vital in order to safeguard an individual's privacy.
  • Participants thought that introducing mandatory equality data collection would reinforce the requirement for organisations (as stipulated by the DPA 2018) to be clear about why they are collecting these data, what they will be used for, and why it is therefore in the interest of service users and clients to provide it.

Positive or neutral views towards making equality data mandatory

9.3 In relation to some highly developed administrative data systems (including those that are published as, or contribute to, National Statistics and some other official statistics), there is an ongoing process in place for determining - and reviewing on a regular basis - which equality characteristics should be collected. This process is consultative, and views on the advantages and disadvantages of collecting a specific characteristic are discussed widely among stakeholders. When a 'new' equality item is introduced, it can take time to obtain high-quality data but there are examples of success in relation to this, particularly within the education sector (and specifically related to student enrolment in post-school education). In general, the quality and completeness of the data for mandatory fields is described as very good.

9.4 In some specific cases, making the collection of these data mandatory is regarded as fairly unproblematic as the data are (already) required for operational reasons. In particular, eligibility for apprenticeship schemes, or specific financial support in relation to education or training or benefits would be determined by information relating to age, financial status, postcode (i.e. the individual must live in Scotland), etc.

9.5 A range of participants simply said that if the Scottish Government were to implement this requirement then they (i.e. the organisation) would be obliged to meet it, and they were open to this. They also affirmed the importance of having good equality information about their service users / clients available. This point was sometimes expressed as the Scottish Government providing 'cover' or 'authorisation' to the organisation to implement a change in their data collection procedures. It was also suggested that a 'phased approach' to any change would help make this manageable.

Concerns and reservations about making equality data collection mandatory

9.6 Some participants expressed concern about making equality data collection mandatory and thought that an 'inflexible' or 'blanket' approach was not helpful. This group was of the view that these kinds of decisions should be made locally by those who understood in detail the requirements to collect (or not collect) specific equality characteristics and who also understood in detail the features of the environment within which data collection takes place. Organisations did not want to be told to collect equality data when they had no evidence that the specific characteristic under consideration was relevant to their service or policy.

9.7 Participants thought that such a requirement would (or could) be disproportionate or inappropriate, or they could not see why it was needed or helpful. They did not see this development as benefitting their own organisation; they saw it only in terms of meeting some (new) requirement from the Scottish Government. Participants suggested that, if the service offered is limited, then the amount of data which should be collected should also be limited; if the service offered is comprehensive then there is more justification to collect a wider range of data.

9.8 In some organisations, the decisions which were currently being made about whether or not to collect specific equality items were grounded in well-developed and robust decision-making processes. For example, if the Equality Impact Assessment in relation to an organisational strategy revealed no impacts on specific protected characteristics, then there was no reason to collect them.

9.9 Additionally, it was argued that any suggestion that providing equality information was 'mandatory' would present particular difficulties and / or would be inappropriate for those services that deal with the public in more challenging situations.

9.10 Some more practical reservations were also raised including that:

  • In some cases where - in theory - data collection was already mandatory (i.e. there was a 'mandatory' field in a database), there were 'work arounds' which allowed staff doing the data input to move on to the next field in a database without actually entering a real response (e.g. by putting a letter or symbol in a field).
  • It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to enforce completion of equality questions for applications or forms submitted by post.
  • Asking for further detail may reduce completion rates for items that are already collected (or may even be a barrier to uptake of services), especially if it was not clear to the client or service user why the information was required.
  • Some existing processes and data management systems would have to change, and the implications of this varied across organisations. Some interviewees referred to in-house systems which could be readily adapted as required, while others had bought-in systems which nevertheless offered good scope for local configuration by in-house staff. In contrast, other interviewees spoke of complex IT systems involving external suppliers and ongoing contractual and oversight arrangements that meant that changes could be more complicated to achieve and incur financial cost.
  • Some existing equality data collections have been developed through extensive consultation with service users. A requirement for mandatory data collection could undermine this activity.
  • Since the information is 'self-disclosed' it cannot be validated. Making it mandatory will therefore not necessarily improve the quality of the data.

The requirement for additional resources and support

9.11 Irrespective of their views on whether or not making (more) equality data collection mandatory was desirable, participants identified requirements for additional resources and support to be made available if this option were to be pursued as follows:

  • This would need to be accompanied by an initiative (perhaps a Scottish Government led public information campaign) to explain the reasons why it had been adopted. As has been alluded to earlier, members of the general public or service users or grant applicants do not necessarily understand or agree with the requirement to disclose sensitive personal data.
  • There would need to be additional support including IT support (for amending and upgrading IT systems), and also enhanced capacity in relation to IT governance, analysis, and reporting.

9.12 Finally, participants sometimes linked a move towards making (more) equality data collection mandatory with a move towards more standardisation of data (which in turn would require more resources and support).



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