Leadership announcements

Annual Report and Accounts 2023

Introduction by Sir Stuart Etherington

Emerging from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting to the “new normal” and dealing with the effects of external factors – including the war in Ukraine, the resulting price rises and cost-of-living issues – have been familiar themes for many organisations this year and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) is no exception. 

It is against that backdrop of this period of transition following the pandemic that I introduce this year’s annual report, along with the audited financial statements, covering the year ending 30 June 2023. 

The last year has been one of consolidation and investment at NatCen. It has also been an atypical year with the organisation stretched in meeting high demand and a backlog for our social surveys, especially those with face-to-face interviewing components, following the restrictions of the pandemic. At the same time, we have had to invest significantly to reflect changing customer requirements and to ensure we remain relevant. Getting back to a new normal has involved adapting to new survey methods and data collection, whilst picking up “business as usual” by restarting those previous research projects that were put on hold during the pandemic. During this time, investment in NatCen’s processes and systems has been a key focus. 

Building up our face-to-face field force of interviewers back to and then above pre-pandemic levels has been and continues to be a priority for NatCen, following the years when our surveys were “paused”. I am pleased to report that we now have more interviewers in the field than we had before the pandemic started. These individuals represent NatCen on the ground and are vital in the collection of valuable data. In the last year, to support the delivery of our social research, we have adapted our model to take on a number of permanent, contracted interviewers, to supplement the hundreds that work for us on a freelance basis. This provides our field force with a strong foundation to enhance the number of research interviews we can deliver for customers in the future. 

Our investment in 2022-23 has included the transition to a new, integrated online survey platform. We have conducted successful trials of Computer Assisted Web Interviewing (CAWI), Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) and multi-mode surveys. Developments to enable Computer Assisted Personal Interviews (CAPI) only surveys are in full swing and we look forward to seeing the benefits of these new technical capabilities and the efficiencies they bring to our work into 2023-24. 

We have also invested in the implementation of our plans for growth and diversification as set out in our new strategy “Making Life Better”. This has meant additional headcount in developing NatCen International, expanding our evaluation offer and building our Centre for Deliberation. I am delighted to see this diversification take shape and am grateful for the staff team’s hard work and expertise. 

In February 2023, NatCen launched its new website. This was made available in parallel with the refreshed look and feel of our branding, to better reflect our strategic aims and objectives of being the National Centre for Social Research. The new website provides new functionality and is accessible for different audiences, with the aim of ensuring our research is more engaging and digestible. 

While in total the investment this year has been significant and exceptional, we do recognise that there will always be years where we do need to invest some of our savings and we should expect and plan for that. The additional costs we have incurred in the 2022-23 financial year, both due to higher costs and the need for investment, drove us to an operating deficit for the first time in seven years, despite revenues remaining close to the high levels seen in the previous year. However, this has also been a relatively good time for our investments, following two years of higher-than-expected surpluses, and we have managed to both invest and retain a healthy cash balance. We have already taken some prudent additional steps to address this year’s deficit and are not expecting it to continue in 2023-24. 

Finally, I am delighted to report that NatCen continues to do well in attracting new work and repeat commissioning from our customers. For example, I am pleased to report that NatCen will be continuing its long-standing partnership with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who have renewed our contract for delivering the English Housing Survey for the next 5 years. In addition to this, we were especially proud to be asked to conduct two new longitudinal studies for the Department for Education, exploring education and outcomes across different age groups. 

And we continue to have impact through our research as demonstrated by the case studies in this report. In early July 2023, we launched the fourth of our annual Society Watch reports at an event sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation titled “The Price you Pay – the social impact of the pandemic” – bringing together evidence on the experiences of people during the cost-of-living crisis. In September 2023, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of British Social Attitudes, our flagship survey of public attitudes to key social issues. 

My thanks, as always, goes to the Board of Trustees for the excellent support they provide to NatCen, and to NatCen’s Chief Executive, Guy Goodwin, and his Leadership Team in stewarding the organisation through, and out of, the pandemic. Together we have worked successfully to ensure NatCen meets its charitable objectives whilst delivering the social research it is known and respected for. Early in 2023, we gathered together for our first Trustee Away-Day for some time and held an important session discussing NatCen’s strategic growth and particular areas for future investment and expansion. Considering the depth and breadth of research that NatCen covers, there are certainly some very exciting times for all of us ahead and we remain ambitious as an organisation.

I would also like to thank our staff for everything they do for NatCen. The staff team’s hard work and expertise is the lifeblood of NatCen and we are grateful for their continued dedication and contribution to our mission. At the beginning of the financial year, in July 2022, they got together for a celebratory summer event in Regent’s Park in London to toast successfully negotiating the pandemic and to meet each other after the restrictions. It was a well-deserved recognition of their contribution. 

I am aware of the number of studies that are going into field, involving thousands of members of the public who voluntarily give their time to help us and shine a light on Britain today. As ever, NatCen couldn’t deliver its research without their contribution. On behalf of the organisation, its staff team and Trustees, my sincere thanks to all those who agree to participate in our research and share their views. 

The public’s voice is at the heart of our research so that we can help policy makers make the right choices about the big societal issues of the day and, by doing so, make life better for all of us. 

Sir Stuart Etherington 
Chair of the Board of Trustees