Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated 13/09/16

 

Why Spend More?

Government cuts merely shift the burden, and associated costs, from one department budget to another. Often providing poorer value to the taxpayer as a result. If there is to be a change in policy direction highlighting the absurdities of arbitrary cost cutting in the Welfare State, and capital funding in infrastructure more generally, is needed.

Working in housing you can get caught up in a couple of broken records, repeating time and time again that social housing is needed; and that please, won’t someone think of the poor people. It can all sound a bit noblesse oblige but often you’re one a very few voices pushing those messages. Changing tack, if only for the sake of your sanity, is therefore occasionally necessary.

Show Me the Money

What is often left out in arguing the need for a more progressive approach to policy making in this country is that being a tight arse as a Government often ends up costing the taxpayer (directly and indirectly) more than is saved.  If you have time to read his works, the University of Cambridge based economist Ha-Joon Chang is worth a visit. Whilst the forever left (behind) Owen Jones interviewed him the other week, he has been vocally critical of trickle down economics and Austerity for some time. Notably because the former is bollocks as a theory and the latter more costly for economic growth than expected.

Post-Brexit is seems ‘experts’ (i.e. people who’ve spent years learning about a particular subject) are old hat, who needs them when you’ve got a former Investment Banker (but not part of the establishment) and a former journalist with a penchant for Shakespearean-esk melodrama to tell you the truth+. But it is perhaps worth listening to the various research pieces/staff notes coming out of the world-renowned hotbed of Marxist thinking, the IMF. It has released a number of critical pieces on more recent macro-economic policy approaches and how they’ve failed to solve inequality and provide sustained growth.

It should be noted that the contents of such works represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the IMF itself. Bloody economists, they’re always particularly anal about caveats and detail. Almost as bad as accountants. To ram home the point reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights how the IMF, amongst others, has been fundamental in pushing many of the policies that have actually caused greater economic damage than progression.

What Does this Mean for Housing?

Well, being selfish, it means that it is probably worth setting aside more capital funding for infrastructure projects (like building social and affordable housing). It would also be worth re-visiting plans to strip back the welfare state to the point where all that’s available is a couple of turnips* and stale corn flakes. Both of these pipe-dreams are unlikely to happen any time soon. But redirecting the narrative is desperately needed where Central Government and the Welfare State is concerned (a bit like Own Our Future, but without the OOF acronym). Thanks to excellent research from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the negative impact of inequality on households is well-known. However, the more recent admission from the IMF that inequality negatively impacts growth should provide the ammunition to make the case for investment over cuts. Or as Olivier Blanchard put it:

what is needed in many advanced economies is a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation, not a fiscal noose today

So change-up the language and change the focus of dialogue. The old adage of needing to spend money to make money (or in this case, save money) is useful here. By highlighting that through investing in secure, good quality, affordable housing the state, and by extension the taxpayer, gets far more bang for its buck (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). When you can show the cost effectiveness of preventing individuals and households from hitting crisis point (and therefore requiring acute, high cost interventions) you’ve won half the battle.

Not Convinced?

Just count the cost of housing those accepted as being statutory homeless, count the cost of those sleep rough on the streets. Count the cost of those relying on friends and family for a sofa to sleep on. Count the cost of the severe damage to job prospects, education and even health that is caused by insecure, poor quality housing. Add that up and investing in social housing and a Welfare Sate is frankly a snip at the price.

Because, why spend more?

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

+Is this a dagger I see before me? No Michael Gove, it’s your political ambitions going up in smoke.

*In fairness, in Worcester (my home town) this would probably make you King…

It’s Always the Quiet Ones

Organisational change will always have its challenges, some of which can be anticipated, others not so much. Whilst a lot of focus is spent on those near the top of the pay scale in terms of undermining change, it’s actually those closer to the ground floor that can put a real dampener on proceedings. Managing messages, engagement and understanding staff motivation(s) is therefore key.

A Little Anecdote

On my way to work there is a Shell Petrol Station (other destroyers of the Earth are available). Recently they’ve deemed fit to stop people parking on a bit of green adjacent to them. To try to do this in a not-so-dickish way they put in big concrete plant pots. What they hadn’t counted on was the tenacity of locals in wanting to park their cars for free. In short, people just parked between the aforementioned plants. A week later work men are back on the scene and by the end of the day even more plant pots have arrived and now no-one can park there. Moral of the story? People don’t like being forced to change the way they’ve always done things. You may have to leave them no option.

Things to Consider

A bit like Leadsom referring to herself as a mother to validate her view of macro-economic policy, yet taken as trashing a rival, what a person says and what other people hear are two different things. People looking to get other staff to ‘buy in’ to change tend to ignore that what the phrase means in practice i.e:

‘I want to change the way you work, hopefully for the better, but I’m not 100% sure on that. You agreeing with me makes this process a lot easier, so JFDI*.’

Not nearly as succinct, or cushty is it? But it is a more honest statement around organisational change. For many change is not an opportunity, it is more work on top of what is an already challenging workload. Often because someone at mid-to-senior level saw something at an un-conference and thought it would work rather neatly in their part of the business. Perception is key here. People who have been in a role for a while will carry on doing what they’ve always done until utterly forced otherwise. Because people are naturally cautious, careful beasts that mitigate change to the best of their abilities. Well, for the most part they are. You’ll always have a couple of nutters who want to go try something new like extreme ironing.

*Just Fucking Do It

So What to Do?

Like it or lump it, winning hearts and minds is fundamental to instigating embedded change. Because despite what a number of consultancy hawks post on twitter “Innovator Destroyers in Chief” aren’t always the heads of needless bureaucracies. Often it’s actually front line staff who are pissed off with moving goal posts and have no desire to retrain that are the most efficient change blockers.

Fundamentally what people want is to be able to do their job easier, without any risk to their livelihood. But what they hear when the change word, or its pumped up cousin transformation, is mentioned is re-structure. A phrase which is, rightly or wrongly, intrinsically associated with job cuts. Given the fact that Housing Associations go through a restructure every 2-3 years people can get battle weary. Your Top-Down Approach To Transformation (TDATT for short, the D is silent), is just another set of jobs cuts and unwelcome upheaval unless explicitly, and painstakingly, proven otherwise.

I should probably state that having been through restructures and mergers in my few years in Housing this is one of the areas I am actually a bit of an optimist. Organisations need to develop, to evolve, to grow. Stagnation is the death of a business, social or otherwise. And where change happens, so opportunities grow. But I don’t have kids, or a mortgage to worry about. What I would recommend is less time on flashy slide shows and focus more on the communication of the change; why it’s happening, will it affect jobs, what are its benefits. Otherwise your change will fail.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

UK Housing Policy: A mess years in the making

cropped-bbc-council-housing.jpg

Insecure tenancies and poor quality housing are health issues, they should be treated as such. Investment in all of the 3 main types of housing tenure and reform of Private Rented Housing is needed to avoid a crisis evolving into a full on catastrophe.

Political Failure Manifest

Complicated is what we use to avoid simple truths (Some bloke off the internet, 2016)

The modern-day crises that make up the UK Housing crisis are a complex mish-mash of competing and conflicting needs.  More housing is desperately needed, but no Government wants to dampen house prices when the economy and individual wealth creation are heavily tied to ever-increasing house prices. To get around this tricky issue, Cameron et al have attempted to side step the main problem at hand i.e. instead of increasing the supply of the right type of housing in the right areas they have deliberately mis-identified the actual problem (of supply) with an easier issue to solve (demand). Why? Because simpler problems are easier to fix.

As Campbell Robb noted the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public has longed been lost in relation to social housing provision. So it seems has all logic. We want our kids to get housing of their own, to be able to afford to buy, but for our own house prices to keep on rising. With Teresa May now PM it remains to be seen if the over-focus on Home Ownership will continue, Jules Birch fears, just like Teresa, it May (sorry…too tempting).

Poor quality housing is a public health issue, treat it as such

As the social housing sector has been allowed to dwindle, those who used to be on the margins of being accepted into social rent have had to turn to the private sector. In the South and South East this has put an inevitable strain on housing, pushing rent prices further away from affordable levels. This in turn has led to families unable to buy, but ineligible to rent social housing relying on insecure private sector tenancies. It is no surprise that the number one reason for being made homeless in the UK is the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). Insecure, poor quality housing can be just as detrimental as being homeless, all being linked to:

A parallel issue is poor quality housing. It is not uncommon to see news reports on landlords who have not just violated HMO rules, they’ve jumped up and down on them, popped them in one of those circus canons and blown them apart as spectacularly as Michael Gove’s leadership bid. I’m sure the resistance to any kind of further regulation and licensing of private landlords has nothing to do with the fact that a large part of MPs are landlords themselves, but the wilful inertia needs to stop. In the right conditions Private Renting is a very good form of housing provision, the majority of landlords are good. But when lack of alternatives are driving those in the bottom income quartile to beds in sheds, overcrowded and frankly dangerous housing, the buck needs to stop.

So why are we not doing more to battle this?

I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my boy. [I’m] Fed up of moving all the time.

The current Tory Government will argue that via RTB2, Help to Buy and Shared Ownership they’re helping those like my friends (and me). But whilst there are a plethora of products designed to facilitate access to home ownership, many simply just aren’t suitable for those who most need it. We need a Government to invest in all 3 of the main tenures in this country, because what we have right now is poorly channelled money and whimsical, wishful thinking. Post EU Referendum I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Let’s take back control of something that actually matters, our housing policy.

The above quote is symptomatic one of a many up and down the country having to juggle affordable private renting, school and the need to provide secure home for their kids. It’s from a mate of mine, one of at least 3 in the same situation. As a private renter myself I’m one legal notice and 2 months away from homelessness at any given time. So pardon me if I sound a little pissy at A) the lack of action and B) the wrong policies being pushed.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Hope Note Hate

As the dust starts to settle on what quite frankly has been one the of the ugliest political campaigns (Zac I’m Not saying Kahn is a terrorist sympathiser but…Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign aside) I can’t remember one quite as openly ugly, earnest reflections on who we are as a nation are needed.

Lies, Damned Lies and Vote Leave

Perhaps I was a bit naive but at the start of the EU Referendum campaign I had hoped that although tightly fought both sides would bringing meaningful arguments to the debate. That facts and figures would be used to back arguments instead of being bent to breaking point in order to fit the narrative being spun. That quite simply hasn’t happened, and instead false claims and counter claims have been thrown about by both sides. And little by little the arguments used have become uglier and uglier.

As someone who works in housing, who has a degree in Sociology & Social Policy and a Masters in Housing Policy and Practice it particularly pisses me off when rumour, misinformation, gossip and outright lies around access to social housing, and housing more generally and the EU are bandied about. I don’t blame the Poles for a lack of social housing in this country. I blame the Coalition Government for reducing the capital funding for social housing by 60% and the subsequent Tory Government for ignoring it in its entirety.

homer-simpson-quote-oh-people-can-come-up-with-statistics-to-prove

The consistent lying has been quite breathtaking, God bless FullFact, they have been working overtime trying to provide insight and context behind some of the ‘facts’ that been flying around. I will be very glad when its over just so I don’t have to put up with seeing Vote Leave politicians in a live public debate knowingly lie and misrepresent figures because their basic argument is a essentially of mixture of nostalgia and mild xenophobia. With a position that goes against the advice of the IMF, IFS, various Central Banks across the world, not to mention the overwhelming majority of economists. But don’t worry Gisela Stuart is a mother and therefore knows best.

Blame the foreigner

Realistically Ms Stuart isn’t the worst, not by a long shot. The fact that someone like Nigel Farage gets air time is appalling. His latest stunt, from the Joseph Goebbels school of propaganda, is case and point. To his defenders he is one of the bastions against ‘PC going mad’, a chap who says it how it is. He isn’t, he’s just an opportunistic muppet, happy to rail against the EU whilst securing a great big pay cheque from it. There are chocolate teapots in this world that contribute more to this country than that oxygen thief. And for the record political correctness isn’t going mad it’s just society has decided to move on from some of the racist, homophobic and misogynistic traits it used to have. Whilst we still have a long way to go you’re just a little bit behind the curve, try to keep up.

As ugly as it is, the frenzied xenophobia masquerading as concern over the state of our country that has been plastered all over our papers is symptomatic of underlying tensions in our nation’s psyche.  Regardless of the result there are some clear issues that need addressing. There are elements of society, particularly (but not exclusively) those in the working class, who feel let down, marginalised and threatened. They have legitimate concerns over immigration (yes it’s an issue, no not in the way portrayed by a lot of our press), pay, working conditions, state support and a perceived encroachment on their lives by the state (ironically enough). Whether a Tory Government will give a damn, or a Labour Party desperate to get back in power (with or without its current leader) will dare to be seen as being too pro-working class (you do have to go back to the 80s for that mind) remains to be seen. Either way their concerns need to be heeded.

In Summary

What I am hoping for tomorrow is quite simply that, Hope. That optimism about the benefits of the EU wins out over blind nostalgia and cynical manipulation of legitimate concerns. That we opt, at least in terms of the EU, for a more progressive and inclusive approach to politics. Because bugger me it’s been severely lacking over the past few years.

What we don’t need is rhetoric that is essentially – blame the foreigner, blame the foreigner, blame the foreigner. How about blame the austerity cuts to Housing, blame the cuts to Local Authority budgets. Blame neoliberalism’s failed experiment with our economy. Leaving Europe solves none of the actual issues facing the UK. Fuelling hatred based on nationality merely deepens divisions. That helps no one.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated to expand on social housing points

 

 

The Japanese Juxtaposition

As a sector getting creative in how we approach our traditional pitfalls of technology and digital transformation in a challenging environment is key if we are to meet the risks, opportunities and threats of the next decade.

DilbertProbably my favourite Tweet of all time came from Paul Taylor, it highlighted an article that showed there are people, living and breathing among us, who still believe that a fax machine is essential to their business. Not just a small number, 30% of those surveyed. What the actual fuck. This isn’t just something out in America, these are British workers. As someone brought up and raised on computers, who uses their smart phone to pick up news stories, who will Skype his brother half-way across the world and has a Gran who smashes it at WhatsApp this is baffling. But actually is it?

The interesting thing on technology and tech users is that people get so caught up in stereo-types that they miss the bigger picture. Old people are assumed to be rubbish, young people natural whizzes. Yet one of the most interesting articles I’ve that ‘s popped up on the BBC website shows that appearances and stereotypes can be highly deceptive. The piece in question looked at the use of technology in Japan. And how, despite appearances, many business were heavily reliant on tech that probably belonged in a museum rather than a work place.  With some estimates putting Japanese businesses 5 – 10 yrs behind their counterparts internationally in terms of adopting modern IT practices. This from a country with the bullet train and some of the best known high tech firms in the world.

Why so serious(ly slow)?

The answer is quite simple, out of the estimated 4.2million business in Japan 99.7% of them are Small or Medium Enterprises (SME) and they are tight AF when it comes to investing in IT infrastructure. And incredibly risk averse. For the fax lovers of the UK then, there is good news as they are apparently still en en vogue. Best get going then, off you go. Jokes aside this Luddite approach to technology is having a serious impact on productivity and is a part of the reason why Japan’s economy is in horrific shape. So what does this have to do with housing? Well, organisations slow to adopt new IT practices, slow to change their ways in operating, using old technology. Is this ringing any bells?

The HCA may have ruffled some feathers with its analysis of social landlord costs. But that’s only because it is in part right. We haven’t evolved because we haven’t needed to, and just as we aren’t as efficient as we could be because we could get away with it we haven’t upgraded our tech readily enough because there was no pressure to. However, in terms of the tech we use at least, that is changing sharpish. But as Peter Hall notes the traditional ways of meeting external drivers of change in terms of reducing costs may not cut it. A new digital solution or strategy does not guarantee costs savings or a more efficient way of working. Consequently re-evaluating our approaches to thinking about change maybe necessary.

The Future is Bright(ish)

If you haven’t read it already I would recommend  Paul Taylor‘s blog on the rhetoric of digital transformation. Aside from noting the depressing fact that often digital transformation A) Isn’t that transformative and B) hasn’t really happened. Paul references two chaps it is worth having a look at: Carl Haggerty and Frank Diana. Indeed if you want to collect some useful quotes/bullshit bingo Frank has some zingers.

  • In times of change the greatest danger is to act with yesterday’s logic (Quote from Peter Drucker…I don’t know him either)
  • Wait and see means wait and die (bit melodramatic, but still)
  • Leaders must shift from a focus on what is, to a focus on what could be (so on what to be or not to be…?)

Tying these into how HAs think about changing the way their business operates is key. As is moving from past success and failures and onto what might be in the future is needed, because the current methodology isn’t working. The future is going to be challenging, it’s time to get creative in how we meet it.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

 

Food for Thought

On 23rd June UKHousingFast joins us again, bringing together the Ramadan, the housing crisis in the UK and raising food donations and money for a very important charity, The Trussell Trust (I think even the DWP likes them now). Essentially it is the perfect opportunity for a ‘what does it all mean’ moment. Just don’t go and buy a bloody sports car afterwards. This is a period for a reflection, not an enabler for a midlife crisis.

An Unlikely Faster

If you ever proffered me a penny for my thoughts my response would probably involve food. I love the stuff, usually the more unhealthy the better (FYI there is an immense Cro-nut stall down the market by Greenwich Pier). Nutella (other hazelnut based spreads are available) and Pizza are probably my biggest weaknesses. I can devour a large Domino’s (Pepperoni, always) in one sitting, me and the Ladyfriend rarely have Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream for the same reason. Needless to say the concept of #UKHousingFast did not immediately appeal.

If you’re thinking of going to the gym whilst fasting, don’t.

Lessons from Last Year

However last year I decided to give it a go. I also decided to go to the gym whilst fasting. To cut a long story short if you’re thinking of doing this and you are going all day without food, don’t. Take the whole day to have some introspection. On a side note it is amazing how much will power is needed to A) Not think about food B) Not eat the damn stuff, but that might just be me.

Whilst in no way the main part of the day or even a stated focus of #UKHousingFast. A consistent theme amongst people who have undertaken was the respect it brought out of them for their Muslim friends, colleagues and family. Doing this for one day, or even a meal is tough, doing it for the entire period of Ramadan is a dedication that can only described as impressive. But just as important, and more in tune with what the day is about, is the reminder that for an increasing number of people fasting is not a choice tied to faith but a survival tactic when money is incredibly tight. It is a small part of a wider network of support for those living on the breadline.

One of the things that really works with #UKHousingFast, it’s an immensely personal but also incredibly diverse/open campaign to get involved in

What to Take From the Day

Whatever you want, support from colleagues friends, both real and social media based, makes the day on its on. But fundamentally you get out of it what you put in. If you just want to raise some awareness, get some money in for the Trussell Trust that’s fine. If you want to go further that’s also great. There’s a list of things you can do here. That’s one of the things that really works with #UKHousingFast, it’s an immensely personal but also incredibly diverse/open campaign to get involved in (Housing PR people, take note).

If you want to get involved you can find out more at https://ukhousingfast.wordpress.com/ or you can follow them on Twitter with the handle @ukhousingfast. If you’re taking part don’t forget to tweet using the #UKHousingFast hashtag. I will be tweeting my little heart out, probably be giving a minute by minute guide to what I will devour come night fall.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.