The fluffy stuff might not always grab the headlines but it is an important part of who we are as social landlords. We just need to get a little bit smarter about how we go about it.
The chances are when resident involvement is mentioned in a housing office eyes start to role over. I can actually hear yours going now…stop, come back to me, this is worth it. Just as hippies have often been bemoaned for having their hearts (if not their hygiene) in the right place, but ultimately being a bit ‘out there’ so too have all things involvementy (not sure that is a word but let’s go with it) been given the “ah bless ’em” treatment.
The notion of involvement in social housing is an incredibly woolly and vague concept. This doesn’t help its perception as largely being a bolt-on to the mainstay of a landlord, i.e. rent, housing, repairs and maintenance. Does involvement mean allowing residents on the board of the organisation (they often are)? Does it mean residents taking part in procurement exercises (my pet hate)? Does it mean dragging a few out to sign off the yearly annual report to residents (another bugbear of mine)? Does it mean paying lip-service to engaging with residents in the hope that they stop all that moaning (depressingly this is occasionally the case)?
For me, the main problem with resident involvement is not so much the end game i.e. an organisation that is responsive to the needs and opinions of its customers. But the way we go about it. As a sector we still rely far too heavily on cost heavy, labour intensive approaches by which to engage and involve our customers. With offices only open 8am – 6pm (give or take…) we seem to think that we will get a representative group of people to hold us to account and drive service improvement by having meetings mid-afternoon on a Wednesday (or any other week day for that matter). This is of course utter bollocks. What happens is that those who largely have the time, space etc to come along, do. Consequently, residents groups are made up heavily by the grey brigade with a few out of work and long term sick customers thrown into the mix. All bring valuable insight into the way in which we operate and how it affects them. But they do not provide the whole picture, nor should they be expected to. Just as I couldn’t possibly represent the voice of a generation neither can the the grey brigade fully speak for the people who so kindly keep us in our respective jobs.
That is not to say we should shut up shop and stop trying to engage and involve customers, quite the contrary. We do however need to be more open to different ways of going about things. A fine example of a non traditional approach can be seen at the Mecca of social media in housing, Bromford. Although on paper not a great PR episode for the chaps and chapesses over in the Midlands, with long term issues of damp resulting in a resident driven online campaign. The fact that a group of residents identified a problem, held the social landlord to account and ultimately set in motion the wheels to rectify the said problem (without the need for a midday meeting organised by the organisation) highlights my point. We do not always have the answers, we should not always be the guide. We should however listen. The best companies in the wolf pit of the private sector adapt their offering according to feedback (both company and customer initiated). We would do well to follow suit.
So how do we go about avoiding the old pitfalls of relying on a largely unrepresentative body of guys and gals?
- Targeted communications – use the data your organisation has on your residents, want to know what first time customers think about their new property and the issues they face? Ask them. Look at who is involved and target the exact opposite.
- Non meeting reliant feedback – you do not need to have residents in a meeting to get their opinion, facilitate remote working within your involved customer base and reap the results.
- Do not just do 9-5 working – this means more weekend and evening meetings and yes more online based communication.
- Expand your customer surveying approach(es) – it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that if loads of negative feedback is filtering through about a particular service area then you should do something about it. But you have to ask people in order to get their opinions, or better yet listen when the phone/text/email/tweet their issues. For god’s sake though do not just rely on paper surveys when asking people what they think!
Or maybe I’m just talking a load of gibberish and we should just make the same old mistakes (pro tip, we shouldn’t). For an interesting blog on this subject I suggest seeing Mr Paul Taylor’s latest offering. Thought provoking as always.