Don’t worry our values will save us.

tommurtha

Profit for purpose, social business, business head social heart, value driven, social enterprise. I am sure you will recognise these terms. They are all used to describe housing associations in the new era. They are intended to show that even though housing associations are diversifying, entering new markets and becoming more commercial they are doing it to continue to deliver social values.

When I speak or write about the risks of diversification I am often told that there is nothing to worry about as the sector is still committed to strong social values and that its leaders will ensure that this continues to be the case. I have argued elsewhere that history shows that organisations who have gone down this route, even though they begin by making this claim, often end up by being driven by their financial imperatives and not their values. The reply to this is that I…

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Ways and Means

Going digital doesn’t mean weakening your customer service offer, they are not mutually exclusive. But don’t think that by having a new website/online portal you’ve solved all your woes when it comes to facilitating interaction with those who pay your wages. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Well sit right down my wicked son, and let me tell you a story

After switching energy supplier it became obvious that I was paying far too little per month via Direct Debit. Popping onto my online account to change it proved a dead-end. Turns out I can make one-off payments, I can phone the call centre or I can wait for the 6 monthly review of my bill. Now here’s the thing, I spend all day talking to people, the last thing I want to do is get on the blower in my spare time and pretend to be nice to someone else. So I ended up sending my energy provider a borderline grumpy message about why I was not going to be calling up and could they pretty please pull their finger out regarding their customer offer.

To my surprise the next day, the auto response stated 5 working days – that pissed me off just as much as not being able to amend my Direct Debit online – I got a very apologetic email. Not only did the reply state how much I owed, how much my direct debit could be switched to ensure I had a zero balance by July but it also told me that a complaint had been raised on my behalf due to my displeasure with their service. What impressed most about the reply was the fact it matched the way I contacted the organisation, answered all my queries and apologised. This happens so rarely that it was a genuine pleasure to be on the receiving end. It also raises the question why they hell none of that was available via their online offer.

The Circle of Life

If the above sounds familiar to those of you working in housing, it should. Because if there’s one thing we are good at it, it is boxing people into ways of doing things they don’t like. Case in point – shifting in-bound contacts. Often this is couched in the language of ‘nudge’ theory, where one gently moves people down a preferred path of action with some subtle encouragement/positive reinforcement. Preferably from costly call centres to one’s new, if debatably performing, website/online account offer.

Well that’s the theory. The problem is we don’t operate ‘nudge’ theory in housing, we operate ‘shove’ theory. This involves shutting down other options to force people down particular routes, even when the organisation’s preferred one is a steaming pile of the proverbial.  And then wondering why people are getting pissed off at the service being provided.

Send Me On My Way

Too often it is easy to forget that at the heart of customer service is the need to tailor the way an organisation interacts with their customers to meet their preferences. This is not a cost saving exercise per se, although it may well be a welcome side effect, a tailored communications offer is about dragging your business away from its Soviet Era bureaucrat approach. It is about giving people a genuine choice in how to interact. And just as importantly via the means they’re most comfortable with and in a way that answers their query.

Why write a letter to someone when they’ve been contacting you via Twitter? Why phone when they’ve emailed? Yes, in some cases it might be a necessity but tweak your comms. channels to match their needs. Not the other way round. As a freebie, if you want to see how social media interaction with customers is good for both them and your business check out Amy Nettleton and her team at Aster. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a pretty darn good example of how to do customer service right. It is also the very opposite of what most of the sector is doing, i.e. having a social media account with a personality. Heaven forfend.

This is the end, my only friend, the end

Today is International Happiness Day, whatever the hell that is, so I guess I should end on a chirpy note. We are slowly moving towards offering a more diverse set of means by which to communicate with our customers. Occasionally in line with their preferences. It’s not quite there yet, far from it, but it could be so much worse (I tried).

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

Photo Credit

Neil Howard (2014) Telephone Booth, Longstock, Hampshire

Song List

Rusted Root – Send Me on My Way

The Doors – The End

The Pixies – The Holiday Song

The Lion King – The Circle of Life

Right To Bye

The Welsh Government has begun the process to scrap the Right to Buy in Wales. For the social housing sector this will be an important victory if it makes it through the Welsh Assembly. It highlights the fascinating splintering of approaches to housing across the UK, and whilst not universally popular, it is a decision that (it is hoped) will help with the shortage of social housing in Wales. Along with similar measures already put through in Scotland case studies of scrapping the Right to Buy are abound for those in England to mull over.

It’s a Numbers Game

There is a stat I have regularly used to put things in perspective regarding Right to Buy, and it’s one that is worth repeating. In 1980 UK had just over 7 million permanent dwellings rented from LA or Housing Associations*, by 2014 that figure was under 5 million (DCLG Live Table 101). In 1980 the number of social housing units started and completed by HAs* or Councils was 109,930. In 2014 it was just 30,090 (DCLG Live Table 211). In broadly the same period (1980/81 to 2013/14) 1.8 million properties were bought under Right To Buy. Put simply we’ve lost too much and replaced too little social housing (see the chart below).

If the Government was willing to ensure Councils got the full market value of the property and all the receipts, or even facilitated the tenants buying a house elsewhere at an equivalent discount, and crucially guarantee a 1:1, like for like replacement I’d be all for it. But historically that simply hasn’t happened, and improved noises from Barwell et al aside, I don’t see this changing any time soon. And therefore neither will my opposition to Right to Buy.

More’s the point research has consistently shown that 1) Right to Buy has had an adverse impact on the housing benefit bill, diverting resources to (higher cost) private renting than would have been the case 2) crucially through the loss of social housing Right to Buy has intensified problems of housing affordability. In London the problem has been particularly acute.

Dwellings by Sector new
Source -DCLG Live Table 101 [Dwellings] by Tenure (UK) Historical Series
As a side note, the IFS did some interesting modelling work on Right to Buy prior to the Voluntary Version coming into play. It’s worth a read.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way that You Do It

Subtle changes have been occurring with the current UK Government’s approach to housing. Gavin Barwell has admitted, at least in part, that replacements for RTB have not always been secured fast enough and has sought to increase capital funding for non-market rent properties. And it seems the urgency for the roll out of VRTB has been somewhat tempered.

Elsewhere the passing of Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill has been heartening, as has the interest being shown by Sajid Javid in the Housing First approach to treating vulnerable homeless individuals. 18 months ago this was frankly unthinkable. They show a more mature approach to tackling the various housing crises in this country than has previously been the case since 2010. Albeit with continuing issues on Welfare provision, which is an intrinsic part of the picture.

Conclusions

Ultimately the scrapping of Right to Buy in Scotland, and now potentially in Wales are unlikely to influence the current Government. But they will provide the opportunity to test how to end a policy that has, for the most part, benefited the individual at the cost of the wider community, and by extension society. If we are to have a more balanced, long-term approach to housing in the UK it needs to go. Whether there is the political will to do that remains to be seen. Either way it’s a fascinating, if endlessly frustrating, time to be a housing policy geek.

 *What the DCLG wraps up under the umbrella of a Housing Association.