Building Bridges

Under Theresa May we have a Government that appears to be listening the voice of the social housing sector, at least in part. Following a very sympathetic Autumn Statement it is time to make the most of the opportunity at hand.

A couple of years ago at a Housing Party breakout session the question was asked is the sector independent or tied to Govt policy? The room was reasonably split, whilst my answer was both (yea, I’m that guy) though more on the side of Government influencing. HAs might like to think they operate independently, but in reality they play within the rules of a game set by Government. It’s why we’ve so often been chasing our tails trying to adapt to whatever new short-term measure has been thrown in by some smart muppet with a grip on reality as vague as 2yr old mid-tantrum.

Unforeseen benefits

Historically I’ve been pretty critical of some of the lobbying efforts of the CIH and NHF. Too often they appear to have been caught off guard by policy announcements, reacting rather than managing the policy changes coming the way of the sector. However, there were very few surprises in this budget. Indeed a number of the key housing policy alterations are remarkably similar to what has been suggested by Mr Orr et al. That is both a reflection of how successful the NHF and CIH have been at shaping the debate. But also of the changes that have occurred in the Cabinet of Mrs May’s Government.

It pains me to say it but Brexit has helped immeasurably here. With Cameron and Osborne leaving their positions the key blocks to funding for the social housing sector have been removed. The Treasury under Osborne dominated both welfare and capital investment programmes. It is no surprise that 2010-16 saw the sector have very little influence on housing policy. Under May and Co there appears to (at last) be at least some realisation of the difference between want and need in relation to housing. The majority of us might want a house, but with homelessness of all kinds on the rise and a housing market not working for an increasingly large proportion of the public. The need of a secure home is just as important policy wise.

The removal of forced Pay to Stay, the Land Registry privatisation being kicked into the long grass and a specific pot of money for sub-market rent are all very welcome developments. As a private renter, so is the plan to scrap letting agent fees. Though at £1.4bn over 5 years (2016 -21) the Autumn statement is not so much making rain for the sector, but giving it a bit of a damp drizzle. Considering the situation the sector was facing just over half a year ago, I’ll take it. It’s like being 3-0 down at half time but being able to salvage a draw. Not so bad from Mr Hammond, a chap who is fast giving John Major a run for his money on lacking charisma.

Still in Choppy Waters

It’s not all plain sailing, VRTB is being expanded, albeit in pilot form, the draconian cuts to the Benefit Cap to £20,000 are still going ahead and the absurdity that is the Bedroom Tax is still in play. Of concen is that social rent is conspicuous by its absence. Additionally, the tweaks to the Universal Credit taper and uplift of the national ‘living wage’ are smaller than hoped and don’t go far enough.

Elsewhere fixed term tenancies are also in, and have caused a bit of stink. But to be honest it’s not something I have much of an issue with. They are already in use in the sector and the kicker is more in the symbolism of such a move, rather than the practical reality. 

As a side note the next year or so might see some interesting case-law as the first batch of 5 year tenancies come to an end (thanks to LaweyergirlUK for highlighting that). Better cross those Ts and dot those Is because as Cardiff City Council v Lee [2016] showed, the landscape can change pretty quickly when it comes to ending tenancies.

What the Autumn Statement has done is shown that this Government, for some of its failings, is at least willing to hear the sector and take on board what it is saying. There have been times since 2010 when the silence from Cameron et al on social housing has been deafening. The U-turn since this summer cannot be underestimated. Still, whilst there is much to commend, there is much more to do. But at least there is now a fighting chance.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit –

London at Night (Churchill Gardens) | by scotbot [2014]

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Chasing Pavements

Taking the leap of faith from focusing on numbers to Customer Feedback is a big step forward in understanding the underlying performance issues in your organisation. It’s time you stopped chasing pavements and actually instigated meaningful change and improvements to the services you provide, based on what your customers are telling you.

It Was only Supposed to Be a Simple Job

When you think about it Housing Associations have a pretty simple job. You charge rent to the customer/tenant/resident/who the fuck cares, in return you agree to do certain repairs. Additionally you agree to cyclically upgrade the main facilities to mitigate against stock depreciation and general wear and tear. If neighbours can’t get along you try to keep the peace. Depending on the culture of your organisation you will also provide a wealth of auxiliary services designed to help keep customers/tenants/residents/who the fuck cares in their homes/sort their shit out.

Simple, right? Well, no. We have a way of making things wonderfully complicated. Key of which is the repairs question. Not least of which because we can’t decide to keep our repairs services in-house or out of house. Akin to Planned Maintenance works, this cycle is utterly predictable. Like the hokey-cokey, but a bloody expensive version. The thing is, the measures you use to monitor the performance of either contractors or in-house staff are largely the same. You’ll still have the same issues, missed appointments, incorrectly stocked vans, wrong trades turning up etc, et-bloody-cetera. However, unless you put the voice of the customer, and their customer journey (puts 50p in bullshit bingo swear pot) front and centre you won’t see the problems at hand through all the figures.

Seeing the Wood Through The Proverbial

You’d be forgiven for believing that we are entering into a ‘post-facts’ age. With both sides of Brexit campaigns using rumour, misinformation and gossip over substantiated fact. And with Donald Trump being, well, Donald Trump. But actually we’re using data, figures and performance measures more than ever before. Simply watch some old school footage of George Best in his heyday and compare it to the stuff you get bombarded with during a game these days. Failing that, look at what you can bet on. It’s ridiculous.

The same can be said for Housing Associations. Via housing management systems and tied-in external pieces of software, there is so much performance data you can quite easily get paralysis by analysis (puts another 50p into bullshit bingo swear pot). You can also get drawn in by the sweet Siren’s song of numbers, glorious numbers. Be careful here weary traveller, endless debates over the minutia will take away from the bigger picture.

Tying it all Together

It might sound like stating the blooming obvious but if there are regular, repeated trends in Customer Feedback you might want to look into it. I know we’re British and like a good grumble, but people don’t tend to moan without good cause. If your customers in one area or with one contractor are always moaning about missed appointments check your hard data. If there is a hard data spike on the same topic, have some ‘awkward conversations’* with staff/contractors until the pattern in negative feedback stops. What you mustn’t do is simply try to bump up the figure in satisfaction by tweaking measurements/definitions of satisfaction. This helps no-one, sort out the Customer Service issue and the number will look after itself. Fail to do that and history will be doomed to repeat itself.

Consequently the key to ultimately improving performance and Customer Satisfaction is to tie-in Service/Business Improvement processes to both your hard and soft data. This is often more of a challenge than identifying the root issues. Because, as noted previously, organisational culture is not something you can change overnight. If you’ve always chased pavements, you will continue to do so until forced otherwise. But by pro-actively using your various datasets to identify Customer Service problems AND THEN insitigate meaningful change, based on what customers are telling you, in addition to hard data metrics, you can’t go wrong. Well, unless your Customer Feedback methodlogy and reporting mechanisms are utter bollocks, but that’s a completely different kettle of fish. Regardess, those are the basic principles to stick by.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*These can be akin to “What the fuck is going on here, chap/chapess?”

Culture Shock

More often than not when reading articles on how to engage with, maintain and build a successful business culture with staff it’s written by people who have been so removed from A) Organisational working (as they’re now freelance speakers/consultants) and B) Who haven’t worked on the front-line for the best part of a decade (or two) because when they went solo they were probably at directorate level (at least). That in mind, here’s a heads up from a guy with sod all experience on how to make the most of your organisation.

Just Like the Movies

The other night I was flicking through channels and momentarily stopped to watch Armageddon. A move with a far better sound track than story-line/acting. Near the beginning (the prelude to meeting Bruce Willis and his motley crew), worried scientists, military folks and that guy who was married to Angelina Jolie (not him, the other one), were discussing how to stop an asteroid that was going to smash the Earth into little pieces. After raising the option of sending nuclear missiles to deal with the aforementioned threat, one of the scientists ruined the idea. Highlighting that if one placed a firecracker in their hand you’d burn it.  However, if you held it tight in your hand, “your wife’s gonna be opening your ketchup bottles the rest of your life”. In order to prevent world destruction some folks were going to need to get up close and personal with a really large hunk of space rock.

Whilst hopefully not as explosive a process, when looking to embed cultural change it’s probably worth taking on board the Armageddon analogy. The culture of an organisation is an evolving beast. No big bang or fundamental reset will embed a shared focus and drive amongst staff. It is through hard won trust that an organisation can shift from one way of working to another. Just because you’ve watched a TEDx talk and went weak at the knees doesn’t mean the rest of your staff will follow. Yes, the overall steer needs to come from a strong leadership team with a long term strategic vision. But that needs to tie into the ‘ground floor’ reality of the staff who will be sharing and, ultimately, implementing that vision.

Treat your Staff as People, Invest in them and Reap the Rewards

Staff are more productive when they are well paid/proportionately paid for what they do. It also helps if they are undertaking jobs they find both rewarding and fulfilling. The Richard Branson quote of focusing on your staff and the rest will follow is typically used here. However there is another, more unlikely, source which highlights the value of investing in your staff.

In 2015 Walmart, one of the stingiest business out there, announced it would pay its workers more and revamped its in-house training. But just as crucially it provided more opportunities for career advancement. The end result? Whilst initial investment might have hit the bottom line of the company the overall signs are positive. The change in approach has seen more dedicated, productive staff joining the ranks (something known as the Efficiency Wage). Staff are happier, so are shoppers, stores are cleaner and in many instances are improving in performance. In short, don’t be a dick to your staff and your organisation will probably perform better as a result. Mike Ashley, are you listening, chap?

Look Outside the Traditional Approaches to Working

Be adaptable, learn through failure and don’t be afraid to test new ideas. Getting change in the Housing sector is like trying to turn around an oil tanker, in a typhoon, when the rudder is broken. We are quick to take on new projects but slow to adapt, change and get rid of processes. Even if they are flawed and not efficient. It feels that after so much advancement in technology, reducing so much of the day to day chores in our life we feel the necessity to fill it up with needless bureaucracy. It needs to stop, sharpish. Best put together a working group to ensure it happens, eh?

On the subject of learning through failure if you don’t already check out Paul Taylor’s piece on it. Or for a crash course in how not to do it, simply look at the England National Football Team.

Whilst the likes of Google and Facebook have long been noted for their different approaches to working. Let’s face it, computer geeks can be pretty highly strung and bribing them with easily accessible food and a ball-pit is a decent pay off. Particularly when you’re talking about two of the biggest and most successful tech companies going. For those of us operating in more mundane occupations/organisations, not to mention smaller budgets, challenging the orthodoxy on working hours is just as important as free grub.

In Sweden shorter working hours are again gaining traction. Though more recent pilots have been less conclusive than perhaps hoped, less sick leave and lower levels of stress have been reported. Longer term there’s the potential to not only improve the morale and work-life balance of staff but also productivity. Such moves may be impractical for many in the social housing sector, but more flexible and/or remote working may be just as beneficial. Just make sure staff don’t take the piss on flexi-time.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*A large part of Walmart’s working practices still suck to the point that neither me nor the ladyfriend shop at Asda, their UK arm, on principle.