Is it OK to ‘prefer not to say’?

Is knowing the sexuality of an individual relevant to the frequency with which they use their local library or how happy they are with the performance of their local Planning Office? Until recently, I would have said not.  However, in the last couple of years, I’ve started to notice an ever-increasing number of “About You” questions finding their way onto surveys, particularly those commissioned by Local Authorities.

Carl Sagan, in his work The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark said: “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”

Questions concerning disability, ethnicity and religion have become commonplace, but are questions categorising a respondent’s sexuality or gender identity really necessary? Some projects can be contentious at the best of times, with researchers treading the fine line between being Crusaders for the Truth and the flunkeys of their paymasters, going through the motions of public engagement to pay lip-service to the principle of democratic accountability.

Asking someone whether their “gender identity is the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?” is hardly going to make our lives any easier. Ultimately, the bastion of common sense is the Market Research Society, custodians of the Code of Conduct, the document that has served as the “foundation” of good research practice for over 50 years.

For the MRS, the key issue is that there is a research reason for asking these questions and that the personal data collected is “relevant and not excessive”. Respondents have a right to know why this information is being collected, so as long as there is a good reason there is nothing inherently wrong in asking this type of question. Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity, rather than challenging the rights of public organisations to collect personal data of this nature, have published a pamphlet encouraging people to “fill in those funny boxes at the end of forms “.

What’s it got to do you with you? addresses all the reasons I feel uncomfortable about asking people personal questions. Whilst I’d be keen to challenge the research reasons why my clients would be asking about sexuality and gender, the Stonewall leaflet reminds us that this information “…tells local authorities where to direct their services; it shows organisations if certain people aren’t making the most of them; and it makes sure that you get the right slice of what you’re paying for.”

Whilst I’m insisting that all questions have a ‘don’t know/prefer not to say’ option, Stonewall are telling people to ‘Stand up and be Counted’! It’s quite natural to feel protective of your personal information. It’s not only natural; it’s sensible. But if local authorities and hospitals and police forces and employers don’t know who’s out there, they can’t be expected to get it right. If you don’t fill in the form and then find that no one’s thought about YOUR needs, well, you can hardly complain, can you?

The Equality Act 2010 provides the backdrop against which public bodies and many employers have started gathering data previously considered too personal or sensitive to collect. Stonewall’s guide to the Act explains the role of the public sector Equality Duty, which guides public bodies in addressing inequalities experienced by their staff and service users, extending previous duties that only covered gender, ethnicity and disability to other groups.

The guide tells us that by 31 January 2012 (6 April 2012 for schools) public bodies should have published data that demonstrates their compliance with the duty, demonstrating how they are tackling inequalities experienced by both service users and staff. The Stonewall guide urges public bodies not be complacent, suggesting they should measure their progress on meeting their equality objectives, in areas such as monitoring: the sexual orientation of participants in any customer service or satisfaction surveys, the sexual orientation of people who complain and monitoring the sexual orientation of people when they access services.

Perhaps Carl Sagan had a point after all. Of course, it’s Ok to prefer not to say, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking the question.