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ESRC Data Archive Bulletin:
An Overview of Government Surveys and Social Statistics

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Text: Edgar Jardine ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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An Overview of Government Social Surveys and Social Statistics

Edgar Jardine
Policy Planning and Research Unit

Department of Finance and Personnel

The organisation of statistical services within the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) differs in a number of respects from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. No formal structural difference is recognised between statistics and social research functions. These functions are provided by the Statistics and Social Division (SSD) of the Department of Finance and Personnel's Policy Planning and Research Unit (PPRU). The Unit also includes an Economics Division which provides an economic research and advisory role; the Department of Agriculture maintains a separate statistics and economic service. SSD's function within the NICS is to inform and help shape Government policy formulation and implementation in Northern Ireland through the provision of professional services in statistics, social research and policy analysis. About one third of the complement of SSD professionals are based centrally in DFP, other personnel are posted to the other NI Departments (excluding Agriculture) where they staff statistics/research branches within Education, Health and Social Security, Economic Development, Environment and the Criminal Justice areas. All branches maintain close links with statisticians and social researchers in GB Departments, independent research organisations and the academic community.

Data Collection

Given that SSD professionals are distributed across all but one of the NI Departments, it is not surprising that the Division's statistics and research responsibilities vary widely. However, the statistics gathering function can be subsumed under three main headings:

  • continuous and regular surveys
  • ad hoc surveys
  • statistics from administrative sources

Continuous and Regular Surveys

The Division is responsible for a number of large scale social surveys, the Continuous Household Survey (CHS), the Northern Ireland Family Expenditure Survey (NIFES) (Archive study number 33240) and the Labour Force Survey (LFS) (Archive study number 33132), all of which provide information on the changing social and economic conditions of households and individuals within the Province. These surveys are similar to those carried out in Great Britain and allow valid comparisons between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. SSD is also involved in questionnaire design and fieldwork for the NI Social Attitudes Survey (NISAS) (Archive study number 33235), which provides information on public attitudes, values and beliefs.

The CHS is a continuous survey based on a random sample of the general population resident in private households in Northern Ireland and has been running since 1983. The nature and aims of CHS are similar to those of the General Household Survey (GHS) (Archive study number 33090) carried out by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in Great Britain. While the content of the CHS is tailored to reflect NI needs, many of the questions and ad sections included on a regular basis are identical to those used in the GHS, allowing direct comparison between NI and GB on a range of variables. The FES has been carried out annually in Northern Ireland since 1967 on a representative sample of private households, and provides data on expenditure and income in relation to household characteristics. The Northern Ireland FES uses identical forms and procedures as the GB FES and a randomly selected sub-set of the NI FES is included in the UK sample. The main purpose of the UK FES is to provide information on the pattern of expenditure on goods and services required to calculate the Index of Retail Prices. However, the range of data now collected on the characteristics of co-operating households has meant that the FES has become a multi-purpose survey providing a unique source of socio-economic information.

The LFS is a sample survey conducted annually in the Spring of each year in all member states of the European Community (EC), the main purpose of which is to obtain comparable data on the characteristics of the workforce in each country and region of the EC. At each co-operating address information is collected on the economic status and activity of all residents aged 16 and over. Survey results are scaled (grossed) to provide estimates relating to the whole population resident in private households in Northern Ireland.

In 1989 the Division embarked on a collaborative exercise with Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR) to extend the British Social Attitudes Survey (Archive study number 33168) to Northern Ireland. The aim of extending the Social Attitudes series to Northern Ireland was to provide a monitor of attitudes on the same central issues dealt with in the British series and also to provide a vehicle for monitoring attitudes on issues specific to or with greater salience in Northern Ireland. The close similarity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain surveys permits direct comparison of attitudes and values on most of the issues covered.

Ad Hoc Surveys

The range and nature of ad hoc surveys undertaken within SSD is inevitably wide, reflecting the range of issues of interest to Departments. However, it is possible to divide the ad hoc surveys into two broad categories:

  • those which replicate and extend surveys undertaken in the GB. A recent example is the Survey of Disability which replicated work carried out in GB by OPCS (Archive study number 33214), but the scope and focus was widened to cover information needs in Northern Ireland more fully;
  • those which examine issues of specific concern or interest to NI Departments, for example the incidence of seat belt usage for the Road Casualty Reduction Unit of Department of the Environment.

The Division maintains close links with counterparts in Great Britain on policy and methodological developments. A recent development has been the introduction of computer assisted interviewing for LFS, and it is now becoming standard procedure that, where possible, all surveys undertaken by SSD should be conducted using computer assisted viewing.

Administrative Statistics

This refers primarily to those statistics collected routinely on Department's main programmes. The range is extensive and includes the monthly unemployment series, housing statistics, hospital statistics and quarterly statistics on the administration of the Emergency Provisions Act.

Dissemination of Statistics and Survey Results

It is Divisional policy that survey results, and research findings should be published and disseminated as widely as possible. This is achieved in a variety of ways including:

  • contributing data to national (UK) and international statistical publications such as Social Trends, Regional Trends, Council of Europe Prison Statistics;
  • production of the NI Annual Abstract of Statistics which provides a comprehensive overview of all the key Northern Ireland statistical series;
  • production of low cost monitors giving preliminary results from CHS, NIFES, LFS. In-house production of monitors has been greatly enhanced by the increased availability desk top publishing techniques;
  • publication of annual, quarterly and monthly statistical series by Northern Ireland Departments;
  • reporting substantive pieces of work in the Policy Planning and Research Unit Occasional Paper Series or as stand-alone reports.
  • contribution of papers to journals, conferences, workshops and seminars;
  • making survey data available for secondary analysis. At present NIFES and LFS data are deposited with the ESRC Data Archive as is the NISAS data (in conjunction with the British Social Attitudes Survey data). In addition, each month data relating to the characteristics of unemployed claimants are transferred to Durham University's ational On-line Manpower Information System (NOMIS) and are available for analysis immediately figures are iblicly released;
  • endeavouring to assist individuals or organisations seeking additional information from the survey or statistical databases.


Within the Northern Ireland Civil Service, SSD professionals are responsible for the collection, collation, analysis and dissemination of a wide range of statistical information. Much of these data are readily available in summary form through NI and UK statistical publications or reports. Results from most of the major social surveys are available for secondary analysis though the ESRC Data Archive and monthly unemployment data through NOMIS. There is also the intention to deposit data from other surveys with the Archive and there are plans to have the NI LFS results available through the bureau service Quantime. The Division also responds positively to many ad hoc requests for statistical data.

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