Today is census day, I’ve requested (and filled out) a paper copy of the 2021 census.

The census campaign is loaded with appeals to ‘save taxpayer money’ by filling it out online. In fact the collection of information is outsourced to a private company (Leidos), so an appeal to save money in this case is an appeal to increase profit margins. Leidos is not any generic data administration company either, they have ties to military concerns. They’re not the sort of company I would have any goodwill towards.

On the surface the public service hasn’t changed, the Office of National Statistics will get their data after all. Underneath it though there’s a shift in ownership, it becomes something commercial, no longer a shared experience of democratic participation. A privatised service has no common interest between users and providers. You can hear it in the language used, ‘citizens’ become ‘customers’, it’s a completely different set of relations.

census envelope

I would usually feel a sense of duty to contribute to this national data collection effort, but if I’m just helping out a private company that positive motivation is all gone. Leidos would like to have a rationalised process, they want it to be as cheap and efficient as possible. On the other hand, you don’t have any obligation to make it easy for them.

While you have to return the census by law, you can be as awkward as you want about filling it in. If you fill out a paper form by hand, your answers can’t go directly into a digital database. Leidos will have to employ someone to read and check the form.

Peace News suggests other petty acts of resistance:

Where an outsourcing company steps in to fulfil a civic function, they’re contractually bound to provide you with a service, but you’re not bound to keep them profitable. I appreciate this as a novel form of civil disobedience, it plays on the space between democratic rights and privatisation. And hopefully in 2031 the census will be run by a public body.