Why Government needs to hear your views on the Community Life Survey

What gets measured gets treasured

As many of you know, the Community Life Survey is the best source of data we have on rates of volunteering in England and Wales. It’s used by countless organisations to track what’s happening to volunteering over time (the data goes right back to 2001) as well as other ways people engage in their communities.

It’s informed and improved policies, and helped organisations decide how to invest in and develop programmes. And in the context of major government policies such as the three-days volunteering leave for employees and campaigns such as Step Up to Serve, which aims to double young people’s engagement in youth social action, we need high quality, reliable data more than ever.

The Community Life Survey is changing

Following an earlier consultation on the survey, the Government is now proposing to make some changes to how it is completed – changing from face-to-face interviews to an online survey. This is most likely because online is a far more cost-effective method and we have seen some major surveys adapt in this way.

It spells an end to data on volunteering over time

A shift to an online methodology will mean that the time series data – giving us hugely valuable insight into rates of volunteering going back to 2001 – will be broken. It’s a big enough change in the methodology that we won’t be able to compare next year’s results to what’s come before. This would be a huge loss and the Government and others will no longer be able to compare rates of volunteering over time.

It could mean a reduction in quality

An online survey will lead to a considerably lower response rate than face-to-face, which is likely to mean that there is a risk of bias in terms of who is responding (i,e, it could be just people who are more engaged and therefore more likely to volunteer, or people more likely to respond online).

Equally, it’s just not possible to ask such an in-depth question about volunteering online – one of the reasons the Community Life Survey is so good is that it has a really comprehensive question on volunteering, which inevitably takes some time to explain to participants.

In short, there’s a risk that simplifying it so that it will work online will reduce the quality and could lead to a less accurate representation of who actually volunteers.

There’s a better way to save costs

We know that the current approach, which involves undertaking more than 4,000 face-to-face interviews every year is very expensive – but quality often is. Rather than move online, I think a better way to make cost savings would be to change the frequency of the survey to every other year, rather than the current situation of every year.

If the survey continued to use the face-to-face methodology we could still compare to previous years and we’d maintain the enormously valuable trend data – this would make the most of the past 15 year’s investment in this fantastic survey rather than starting afresh.

What can you do?

We’re incredibly lucky to have the Community Life Survey in this country, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. We’ve all heard phrases such as ‘what’s measured gets treasured’ and while it’s not always that simple, good policy and good practice needs good data.

The consultation is currently open and will close at midnight on 2 January. NCVO will be making a response but if you’ve ever used data from the Community Life Survey, I would urge you to respond too. Don’t worry if you don’t feel able to comment on the technical aspects of the changes, as the Government is keen to hear how you use the data or what value you see in the survey.

We’ll be getting into the geeky detail of what the proposed changes in the methodology could mean (but please do get in touch with us if you want to discuss anything).

Even a short response saying that you use and value the information from the Community Life Survey will be incredibly helpful for the Government as it decides how to take the Community Life Survey forwards.


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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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