Delivering the infrastructure to support our strategic vision

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)’s ‘Making Life Better’ strategy sets out our plans to 2030.
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The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)’s ‘Making Life Better’ strategy sets out our plans to 2030. Underpinning this strategic vision are a series of functional, more practical objectives to support NatCen’s future direction. These objectives cover our IT services and technology, finances, legal services, property, sustainability and most importantly impact – all areas managed or directly supported under my remit as Director of Finance and Chief Commercial Officer.

NatCen is a charity and not-for-profit organisation but is distinct from most charities in that it does not receive funding from donations, endowments or direct Government support, as most charities do. Instead, we generate its income primarily from commissioned research work. This means NatCen operates with good commercial acumen in order to maximise the incoming resources to fulfil its charitable objectives, whilst never losing sight of the fact it is a charity. This makes NatCen a unique, challenging but also hugely rewarding environment to be a part of.

One of the biggest challenges NatCen faces now and into the future is technological change, its impact on society and how we do our research. As experienced by many organisations during and since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an escalation in the need for more digital and agile tools and collaborative working improvements. Prior to the pandemic, NatCen had invested significantly in enabling staff to be able to work from anywhere and the seamless transition we saw from office working to home working to hybrid working, as we navigated our way through the various lockdowns and the eventual easing of restrictions, only served to underline the need for constant investment and improvement in our technology estate.

The biggest investment that NatCen has been involved in since we came out of the pandemic is upgrading our data collection platform and all associated systems as we move more towards online, multi-mode and automated data collection solutions for delivering social surveys. This project has provided NatCen with a significant period of transformation and innovation. These new systems are supporting the administration and deployment of our social surveys, introducing new ways and options of collecting data as well as adding significant efficiencies to the process.

NatCen is based in three locations around the country, the head office in London, the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) based in Edinburgh and our operations and IT centre based in Harold Hill, Essex. The Harold Hill site has been open since January 2024 following a relocation of a few miles from our former offices in Brentwood, Essex. This new site provides fit-for-purpose premises, providing a modern efficient warehouse for the storage, management, despatch and return of the tens of thousands of pieces of survey materials and equipment that we require annually, as well as high quality office space and IT delivery services. The move to these new facilities represents a step forward for the organisation, providing a much-improved environment and working space. A staff-led group supported the relocation, engaging with the wider team, and taking the lead in ensuring the new premises delivers the space we need, bringing the team together, as well as providing more communal and flexible working spaces.

The relocation process now provides valuable insight for the potential move of our London head office in the coming years. We’ve been in our current building for more than 30 years and have not only outgrown the space but the lack of flexibility it offers is becoming increasingly restrictive to efficiency and innovation. The need for more flexible and collaborative spaces that meets the needs for a diverse workforce, for example for our staff with disabilities, is obvious.  

Efficiencies don’t just stop there. We have developed a Smarter Business programme to ensure we’re able to remain competitive, by offering good and better value for money through on-going, strategic investment in operational productivity. This programme involves reviewing our current administrative procedures and introducing more automation where possible, as well as exploring the potential benefits and uses of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our research and business management processes too.

Working quietly in the background are the finance, legal services and compliance teams who ensure that, no matter what’s happening elsewhere, NatCen is financially stable, well-funded, compliant with all legal and contractual requirements and we can assure its future.

There are some huge challenges ahead, both at NatCen and in how we respond to those faced by wider society. These challenges also bring great opportunities for innovation and change within the organisation. Since we first opened our doors in 1969, we’ve benefited from an engaged, enthusiastic and passionate workforce, bringing a diverse range of experience, specialist knowledge and skills. We look forward to continuing to work together across the organisation to deliver the operations, infrastructure and innovation needed to support the future development of social research.