The relationship between a tenant/customer and their housing association is a messy criss-cross of conflicting interactions, some of them highly volatile. Whilst back in t’day the likes of Octavia Hill would rule like a benevolent demon. Kicking out the drunks and upstarts but providing homes to those who desperately needed it at a time when the state was still looking the other way. These days, for better or for worse, the links between us and our residents are a little more nuanced. Though I have no doubt that housing managers of the modern era would love to be able to do the same as Ms Hill, it is probably for the best they can’t.
Fundamentally the ties between social landlords and those that dwell within their properties are continuously evolving. Greater levels of commercialism, welfare reforms (both those in effect and those yet to come) and organisations generally getting their act together mean we now know more about our customers than ever before. At the same time many are looking to get more distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The sector appears to be favouring a more transactional approach over the traditionally paternalistic (possibly even patronising) one. Yes we will still provide all the ‘fluffy’ add-ons that come with the territory but as a sector many are looking at being facilitators, enablers rather than providers (irony abounds given that we are RPs). The result is that we talk of customers, not tenants. ‘Profit for purpose’, but not surpluses. We are looking at being more efficient at customer contact, more private sector in our thinking. Like actually deal with a complaint instead of pretending it didn’t happen or simply stating that they (the customer) should just be grateful that they have a roof over their head. None of these are bad things in and of themselves.
Can I just ask? I mean, I don’t mind using the term profit (surpluses is a bit woolly for me) but can someone explain to mean when a profit doesn’t have a purpose? ‘Profit for purpose’ is a singularly ridiculous phrase. I appreciate that normally the purpose of profit is to make rich people richer and we want to keep a distance from that but cut out the bullshit bingo please.
So what does this transactional, stand-off approach mean then? Inexorably it means a shift to fewer neighbourhood offices, less physical contact and a greater use of technology. An approach that can currently be best described as digital by best hope rather than by default. The sector has long talked about moving to a more digital mode of operation, alas for the most part it has been exactly that, talk. For the cynic in me this is partly because many organisations aren’t entirely IT competent themselves. However a few hardy souls are at least attempting to bring on this brave new world and show us what it might look like. Halton Housing Trust are beginning a pilot to see how customers/residents/’them lot’ fare with a digital only approach (with some caveats). Needless to say this has been picked up chewed over and overly dramatised by the press (housing and non-housing alike) and some residents.
Although it is interesting in its own right, and you bet your bottom dollar I will be keeping a keen interest in the results. It has been the response to Halton’s work that has most intrigued me. I am genuinely saddened by how knee-jerk and ill informed a number of the responses to Halton’s approach have been. It is symptomatic of a deeply conservative approach that the sector takes to pretty much anything. Getting movement on things in housing is like trying to steer a particularly grumpy cat i.e. tricky and likely to result in a higher than socially acceptable amount of pain (for you, not the cat, that bastard won’t even notice what’s going on). I have always been of the opinion that it is better to try a different approach and fail (i.e. learn something) then repeat past failures. To carry on doing the same thing and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity (see below, it genuinely is). As our relationship changes, so too must our approach, otherwise we will be found wanting.
Face it lads and ladies, change is coming. You don’t nip down to your local British Gas office to make a payment, you don’t drive up to Salford to sort out your TV licence with the BBC. Why should we expect customers do this with us? In some circumstances physical contact with customers is a necessity (ASB springs immediately to mind) but the vast majority of interactions needn’t require a phone call let alone an office visit. If you want to be more stand-offish then you need to give customers the tools do so. As a sector we better get cracking on making this happening. Hopefully Halton will provide some invaluable insight into how to do just that.