Social surveys for public good

The work of NatCen’s Social Surveys Department continues to be relevant and forms a core element of our ‘Making Life Better’ strategy.
Survey form

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) was founded in 1969 to deliver rigorous social surveys and policy research to improve society. The work of NatCen’s Social Surveys Department continues to be relevant and forms a core element of our ‘Making Life Better’ strategy. Since our origins, we have been collecting authoritative, impartial social survey evidence. We are trusted to accurately present the public’s voice to decision-makers and to the wider public. 

Our longest-running social survey is our own British Social Attitudes which in 2023 celebrated 40 years of tracking public opinion and social trends. We are proud that we have also been carrying out the Health Survey for England and the Family Resources Survey for around 30 years each. NatCen is responsible for delivering many other long-running and one-off cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys for government and other commissioners, including our work on travel, diet and nutrition, and mental health. We also frequently collaborate with academic teams, as we do for the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal). 

Providing high-quality, authoritative research is central to what we do, and many of our surveys are accredited National Statistics which means that they are independently assessed by the Office for Statistics Regulation for compliance with the standards of trustworthiness, quality and value in the Code of Practice for Statistics.

A huge amount has changed in social survey data collection in the last 50 years, and at NatCen we have been continually innovating and adapting our approach. The days when surveys were carried out using pen-and-paper interviewing are long gone. Our panel of face-to-face interviewers are still a very important part of our social surveys, but now data collection is technology-driven. Computer-assisted interviewing and electronic contact sheets are now standard, and we are continually looking to develop and invest in our technical capabilities to ensure our data collection remains fit for the future.

For example, we are currently rolling out our fully multi-mode interviewing platform using Blaise 5, which will increase our ability to efficiently operationalise projects across the full range of modes including web, telephone, video and face-to-face. 

Many commissioners are now looking to incorporate alternative modes and digital elements into their surveys. This might include transitioning from face-to-face interviewing to push-to-web methods with paper, telephone or face-to-face follow-ups, or including digital elements as part of a wider project. For example, we have been working with the Department for Transport to implement a digital diary on the National Travel Survey. Our Centre for Social Survey Transformation leads our work to help commissioners understand and work through the trade-offs in alternative data collection methods, to make social research surveys more flexible, responsive and efficient. Our REMoDEL Approach provides a framework and a systematic process for transforming social surveys from face-to-face methodologies, and we are applying this across a range of projects.

Online data collection is increasingly important for social surveys, and NatCen was the first organisation to offer a random-probability web-based panel in the UK. The NatCen Opinion Panel has gone from strength to strength since it was launched in 2015 and can offer representative sample sizes of up to 10,000 adults, as well as regional and other sample-specific boosts. Our contact approach (with a telephone option) ensures that we obtain high response rates from panellists, and this, together with the high-quality sampling methods, ensures that our Panel provides robust data that is representative of the views of the full spectrum of the public, not just the digitally-enabled. 

Making evidence available for other users and analysts in government, academia and beyond is another key activity for us, and many of our survey datasets are archived in the UK Data Archive or made available through the Office for National Statistics’ Secure Research Service, ensuring that these surveys continue to deliver value long after they are collected.

Our social surveys make a major contribution to understanding society’s big issues and the complexity of people’s lives and experiences, making sure that the voice of the public is heard in these key areas and contributes to helping create a better society for all. At NatCen, we want to ensure we hold and extend that reputation for the period from now, to 2030 and beyond, offering and using our extensive knowledge of social surveys to guide commissioners on future choices and ensuring the best possible delivery.