The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has warned that Cabinet Office plans to overhaul the annual Community Life Survey pose a risk to its future utility and has called on other users to make their views known.
Nick Ockenden, head of research at the umbrella body, said he was concerned that the proposed change in collection methodology from face-to-face interviews to online gathering will make future data on volunteering less accurate and render it impossible to compare volunteering rates before and after the switch.
The deadline for responses to the Cabinet Office consultation on its proposed changes, which are partly intended to save money, is 2 January 2016.
The changes have been drawn up after the research company TNS BMRB, which carried out recent Community Life Surveys, reported back to the Cabinet Office that it would be viable to change the face-to-face survey methodology to online.
But Ockenden disagrees with the move and has put forward the idea of saving money by keeping the face-to-face survey but reducing its frequency from once a year to every two years.
"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," he said.
The Cabinet Office says in its consultation document that the switch will end the ability to compare past and future data.
Ockenden said an online survey risked creating bias because it would be more likely to be completed by people who were more engaged and therefore more likely than face-to-face respondents to volunteer, or by people who were more likely to respond online.
The Cabinet Office says in the consultation document that its tests showed the response rate for the web/postal survey was significantly lower than for face-to-face (28 per cent, compared with 60 per cent), which means that the risk of non-response bias is much greater. But it says that there is no evidence to suggest that the quality of the data would be reduced by moving to an online survey.
Ockenden also raised his concern that simplifying the wording of the Community Life Survey’s volunteering questions for an online survey could bring less clarity about who actually volunteers.
"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," he said.
The Community Life Survey replaced the larger Citizenship Survey in 2012.