Better data, bigger impact: A review of social sector data

Nearly half a million social sector organisations in the UK play a vital role in sustaining our society and economy, but a serious paucity of data is preventing the social sector from unleashing its full potential

Over the course of the pandemic, the work of charities, community groups and social enterprises, alongside millions of volunteers, created what was hopefully a lasting illustration of why the social sector matters. From coordinating emergency support to helping deliver the vaccine rollout, the social sector played a vital role in helping the country through Covid. It delivered where the private sector and government fell short.

But history may well tell another story: how, despite being critical to so much of the response, the social sector struggled to make a case for emergency support, trying to explain a business model where income dried up, but demand escalated. How the sector, at times, did not achieve its full potential when its capacity and reach remained poorly understood by many in government. And how this contrasted with the private sector, which was able to clearly and urgently argue its case based on recognised, reliable, and timely data.

The furlough scheme provides a striking example. The scheme was successfully designed for the private sector and regularly amended to match changing circumstances and business needs. As a result, despite many businesses temporarily closing their doors, unemployment peaked at just 5.2 per cent – well below the 8.5 per cent peak seen during the financial crisis. And when the furlough scheme came to an end, data told us how many people were affected, the industries they worked in, and the likely speed of those industries’ recoveries. While the challenge of moving beyond furlough remains significant for many businesses, it is a challenge we have entered with our eyes open.

The social sector, by contrast, had to rely on an employment scheme designed for managing reduced or entirely eradicated demand, even though surveys suggested most charities faced higher demand for their services than usual because of the pandemic. Even now, it is difficult to assess how many charities – let alone social enterprises – made use of the furlough scheme, or its effects. Indeed, in the week the furlough scheme ended, the charity sector celebrated the publication of the latest Civil Society Almanac – the most comprehensive and latest available data source about the state of the charity sector, primarily based on data from a year before the pandemic hit. So while we enter a post-furlough world with a good idea about how well prepared different parts of the business sector are to deal with this challenge, we have almost no idea how well prepared the social sector is for the future. This is just one striking example of a much larger problem created by a lack of timely data about the sector.


Better evidence and data can help

The social sector and volunteering play an essential role in society, but this is rarely acknowledged in UK official statistics or public policy.[1] And when data is most needed – for example, during the Covid pandemic – it is too often inaccessible or unavailable. Without sufficient data, it is difficult for government to develop long-term strategies that enable the sector to maximise its potential. It is equally challenging for social sector organisations and funders to allocate resources where they are most needed.

Bringing data about the social sector in line with what we know about businesses offers big prizes. Getting detailed, timely data will mean policymakers and funders alike can be far more responsive to changing circumstances – just as we are to changing business environments. Charities and community groups are often the canaries in the mine, seeing first-hand the indications that local needs are changing. Better data on the social sector means better data on communities and places. And in a time of post-crisis national reflection and reprioritisation, improving evidence about the social sector’s contribution to our society and economy is vital if we are to support a greater role for civil society. Strengthening the data infrastructure so that we generate reliable evidence is a priority.


There is a precedent we can follow for improving sector data: the public sector

Improving social sector data is a wide and ambitious agenda, but not one without precedent. From the Bean Review of UK economic statistics to the Atkinson Review of how government output and productivity is measured, several landmark reviews have fundamentally shifted how public sector data is collected, used, and reported. These reviews have had significant impacts on how we understand and value economic activity in the UK, such as driving forward a focus on measuring the quality, not just the quantity, of public services.

Moreover, a comprehensive review of social sector data would not require starting from scratch. Looking at data about the business sector as a blueprint, as we have done in this report, provides examples of the types of data we should consider collecting and how they can be used. And useful methodologies for better measurement of the social sector have already been developed and implemented in other countries, like the UN’s guidance on how to build a social economy and volunteering satellite account. Indeed, much good quality data about the social sector already exists: the challenge is just as often how to access it as it is how to collect it in the first place.


Solving the social sector data challenge requires active investment and leadership, but not from one sector acting alone

There is no way to solve these challenges without government and the social sector working together. Quite simply, acting alone, neither party holds all the information or the practical capacity needed to improve social sector data.

Similarly, the solutions presented in this paper are the product of consultation across those social sector leaders and policymakers who rely on data or who find themselves hamstrung by its absence. Our recommendations are intended to provide a blueprint that will improve everyone’s abilities to do their jobs, but taking this to the next stage of implementation will need cross-sector partnership, investment, and a plan for action.


What have we discovered over the course of this research?

There are gaps in data about the social sector in five thematic areas…

Over the course of this research, we found different user needs for social sector data. These range from the relatively simple (directories and lists of organisations) to more complex questions about contribution. A common question is whether any data shows the social sector’s “comparative advantage” or where it delivers more effectively than the private sector.[2] Indeed, those interested in businesses might expect to access a more comprehensive array of standardised data and indicators or national statistics. These provided a reference point for our exploration of social sector data gaps.

From a mix of interviews and desk research, we have highlighted five thematic areas where better data about the social sector is needed: business demography, sector capacity, sector health, sector contribution and volunteering. Strengthening the sector’s core capability to collect data is a prerequisite for addressing gaps in demography, capacity and volunteering. In turn, addressing these will support more analytical work on sector health and contribution.


…though gaps are as much about how data is collected, analysed, and reported

We found that umbrella bodies and government already produce high-quality data and analysis about the social sector and volunteering. Too often, though, data is produced in formats that are inaccessible or difficult to analyse. Data about the sector is sometimes collected but not analysed or reported. And too much data about the social sector is locked up in PDFs, which are difficult or unfeasible to machine-read. Making more use of existing data should be a priority.

Gaps in data coverage also persist. These include limited coverage of small organisations and ‘hidden’ parts of the sector, such as exempt and excepted charities; a lack of disaggregation, particularly the inability to produce standardised, consistent local or sub-sectoral data about the sector; and little current data. Data about the sector is often 24-30 months old. It is rarely available as a consistent time series. There are also gaps in how data is collected, such as the use of unique reference numbers that allow the matching of different datasets.


Government has a role in coordination and leadership…

With leadership, coordination, and investment, these are fixable problems. Some of our recommendations require resources or development work. This will extract more value from existing data sources and surveys. Other recommendations require influencing, coordination and planning. As the recently launched National Data Strategy has highlighted, this is a cross-government and cross-sector challenge. Improving social sector data will require further work from several government organisations, including HM Treasury, DCMS, regulators and the ONS. We think there is an opportunity for these organisations to come together to drive forward government’s role in strengthening civil society data, particularly in the context of the National Data Strategy. Nevertheless, improving social sector data should not be led by government bodies alone – these challenges need to be owned jointly with the social sector itself.


…but the sector needs to prioritise its data infrastructure and keep asking for better data

The social sector should give greater priority to strengthening its data infrastructure. Other reports have highlighted the need for leadership on data infrastructure in the social sector – something we wholeheartedly endorse.[3]

Recognising that both social sector and government organisations have much to gain from, and roles to play in, improving data, clearer leadership should ideally be driven by a cross-sector group, run by an independent, jointly-funded secretariat. Priorities for the group would entail:

  • defining priorities and standards;
  • leading the debate about what data, metrics and indicators best describe the health and contribution of the sector;
  • investing in the data skills and infrastructure that the sector is missing; and
  • making a case for addressing data gaps through, where needed, investment.

Simply leaving these tasks to government is neither realistic nor desirable: the sector needs to define its future. If it does, we can better articulate the role, capacity, health, and contribution of volunteers and organisations that everywhere are integral to our way of life.


Main recommendations and next steps

To address gaps in data about the social sector, we propose five main recommendations. A list of detailed recommendations can be found at the end of this report.

  1. Produce social economy satellite accounts for the UK: to strengthen and standardise understanding of the social sector across the public sector, government should assess the contribution of the social sector and volunteering to the nation using methods endorsed by the UN – then build on this by developing a measure of GVA that shows the actual value of the social sector.
  2. Make better use of existing administrative and survey data that covers the social sector: to derive more usable data about the sector from existing surveys and data, the social sector, government, and regulators should work together to audit existing surveys and datasets to establish where the social sector is covered and what (if any) changes are required to report on the social sector.
  3. Publish regular, timely indicators on the social sector: to enable policymakers and leaders to develop timely, responsive public policy, the social sector, government, and regulators should work together to identify key indicators of the sector’s demographics, health, and contribution, synonymous with data collected about the private sector, and where appropriate, certify these as national statistics.
  4. Modernise the collection of social sector data: to maximise the use and value of existing data, government and regulators should work with the social sector to modernise the submission of annual reports and accounts, making data easier to access, read and link.
  5. Establish a cross-sector Social Sector Data Standards and Coordination Working Group: recommendations two to four require collaboration and leadership from various government departments, the ONS, regulators and the social sector itself. To achieve this, we propose establishing a cross-sector working group with an independent secretariat that, ideally, is co-funded by government and the social sector. The objective of that group should be to develop a National Social Sector Data Strategy, including setting overall direction, agreeing data standards, mobilising and coordinating investment, and building a modern data infrastructure for the social sector. The findings of this report, particularly recommendations two to four, could provide initial direction for the group, but so too could the range of work already underway to strengthen the sector’s data infrastructure, such as the work of the Data Collective. While the working group should be jointly owned and jointly funded, we suggest that DCMS takes the lead in initiating conversations with the social sector to agree on a tendering process for the secretariat and identify potential co-funders from the sector.

[1] For a historical perspective, see Davis Smith (2019) 100 Years of NCVO and Voluntary Action, and Rochester et al (2010) Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century.

[2] For more on comparative advantage, see Bills & Glennerster (1998) Human services and the voluntary sector: Towards a theory of comparative advantage. Journal of Social Policy 27(01): 79–98.

[3] Data Collective (2021) Why we need leadership on data in the voluntary sector, and how you can get involved