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.

 

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When Bulls Play God

With the Housing Bill making its way through Parliament, rent cuts and a generally rough operating environment the temptation may be to cut back non-core services. But with the Tories intent on reducing state help to a couple of plasters and a turnip, helping communities and individuals (not just building homes) needs to remain a key focus.

If I only had one dollar left I would invest it in an employment advice and tenancy support service.

Bill Gates is often quoted as saying that if he only had one dollar left he would invest it in PR. If I had that dollar I would put it into an employment advice and tenancy support service and it appears many in this sector would agree. Research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion found that 67% of housing associations either already ran, or were planning to run, a programme to support customers into work. Many seeing this as a natural extension of their role and an increasingly important priority.

The link between landlord and poverty is an interesting one, with property owners in a unique position to directly (by rent) and indirectly (by additional services) impact (if not solve) the socio-economic security of the tenant. Research on that very subject is available here and neatly highlights the approaches/strategies of the sector and the impact they may have. In addition to this report, the struggles of Gentoo and Circle, both laying off staff as the operating environment toughens, show the balancing act many are having to play.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty. However, for many living in social housing that is either not a realistic achievement due to physical/mental health issues or because of care commitment (in and of itself an undervalued part of our welfare state). But for others, with help, guidance and sustained support it is. As the report from CESI indicates many have, or are about to, rise to the challenge. It is not uncommon for social landlords to build-in apprenticeships and training opportunities for customers/communities into contracts with 3rd party service providers. Maintenance and repairs organisations in particular. Others match fund, or directly fund specific employment training and/or soft skills courses.

So far, so noble but the issue many organisations currently have is defining the benefits for the business. I’ve never been truly convinced by social value calculations. Yes there are undoubtedly more generic benefits that can loosely be quantified but specific cost benefits to businesses are much harder to define. It often takes years for an individual/households to get over historic debt/arrears issues. Poverty is often an up and down life event, it is seldom static. Most importantly life doesn’t neatly fall into financial years for accounting purposes. That aside what should you actually measure? Arrears? Contact with the organisation? Number of repairs? Often such work throws up more questions than answers.

My fear is that without further work into this area, to provide hard and fast, quantifiable proof that employment support benefits all (the CESI report reckoned about £70million could be shaved off the benefit bill) many will simply withdraw as operating pressures squeeze budgets and organisations play safe. That would be a shame for all concerned. Especially those at the sharp end of George Osborne’s attempts at creating lower tax, lower welfare economy.

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

First as tragedy, then as farce?

One of the greatest frustrations I have with housing is its lack of unity when seeking to influence policy. In everything we do there are a myriad set of interests that are often directly competing against each other. If there is a means by which to do the same thing over and over in a million different ways you can bet your bottom dollar housing will find a way to do it. This is one of our great strengths, but also one of our biggest weaknesses.

Hell you just need to see the number of different award ceremonies there are to see this in action. Sometimes I wonder how the fudge we can actually get any work done. Awards don’t just occur, you bid for them, the same way you do for a contract or a piece of work. The only difference is you get a fancy dinner (that you pay for) a nice evening (that you pay for) and a chance to swan around with an award (that you have paid for in work hours putting the bid together). Don’t get me wrong, as a lad born and raised in a land distinctly lacking in diversity I appreciate the need (and benefit) of/for difference. But we seriously need to stop replicating crap for the sake of it.

I was intrigued by Hannah Fearn’s piece on the sector’s reaction to right to buy. Yes, there are some elements that have been a bit hysterical. There are some that do need to be slapped with a wet plimsoll and told to pull themselves together. However, you can’t blame a sector for reacting passionately against such a poor policy that (regardless of whether it will come to pass) would devastate the sector. In his book, this blog post gets its title from; Slavoj Zizek highlights Marx’s contention that history repeats itself. First as tragedy and then as… well, you get the idea. After the last 3 decades of leeching vital social housing via Right to Buy we need to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated as a farce. Though [insert deity of choice here] the guys and gals at CCHQ are giving it their darndest.

What we must be more aware of is that screeching about how crap a policy is will do next to nothing to change it. It is the equivalent of Evangelicals turning up at your door to convert you. You are polite, you listen and (if you are like me) you then point out all the absurdities of the bible/their faith (yup, I’m that guy). In the end you despair and say, “Yes heaven and eternity with you guys sounds swell but I’m happy to be an atheist. At least if I am damned to an afterlife in hell it’s where all the cocaine, hookers and decent music will be…” They go away having achieved nothing and frankly so have you.

Realistically the best way to defeat the extension of Right to Buy will be via the complexities of its implementation. I can’t see this getting through the House of Lords intact, even if it does there is a very strong case for legal action. Though if anyone can get that damn impact assessment released (open government my arse) that would be ace. Any move against Right to Buy will need to highlight the cost of the status quo (i.e. the horrifically bad housing policy in this country) and the value for money we provide. Because at the moment people essentially just see us giving houses to Jeremy Kyle rejects (or foreigners if you are UKIP) paid for by their taxes. Lose public opinion and you’ve already lost the battle.

SHOUT, in conjunction with Capital Economics and the National Federation of ALMOs has put forward a strong argument to highlight our true value. They have also shown some grim figures around the potential cost to all concerned if we carry on our current course and the absurdity of some of Central Government’s thinking. The good ship ‘Make it up as you go along’ needs to change direction. I won’t go through the nitty gritty, Steven Hilditch has already done a cracking job of that. But if you wish to read it you can get your grubby mitts on here.

In the meantime calm down dear, it’s only a bullshit policy. One we can stop.

As always you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Are you being served?

Left Hand Right hand

In an attempt to get over the horror show that was the 2015 General Election me and my ladyfriend went to watch the mighty Worcester Warriors take on London Scottish. For the uninitiated/dead inside this clash of titans was for the 2nd leg of the Championship Play Off Semi-Final. As is customary on our pilgrimage to Lourdes Sixways we stopped off to have some grub and a drink. Hardy Warriors fans will know drinks are a necessity to get you through the game.

At the public house in question all was dandy until the food service kicked in. You had about 4 staff doing different jobs (but not really talking to each other). I can see the attraction of this approach. Each member of staff nails their respective areas. But such modes of work need to run smoothly with communication being paramount, otherwise you end up looking (and acting) like headless chickens.

One particular Faulty Towers-esk moment involved staff member #1 coming over, dumping our drinks and leaving. In the process of doing so he didn’t bat an eyelid whilst completely stopping me and staff member #2 from sorting out the food order.  Random staff member #3 came to check if food was OK. It is a skill but they always ask me mid mouthful so hand signals usually have to suffice at this point. After we had finished staff member #4 cleared our plates. Not stopping to check if we wanted either the bill or dessert (FYI I always want dessert).

Why the rant? Well, swap the pub for a Housing Association the food service for the services we provide and a similar pattern emerges. Very often the different aspects don’t properly interact with each other.  Often from our end the focus is on completing a process, not understanding the needs of the customer. Whilst we may have an SLA which states a 2 week completion time for us.  For the customer that is 2 weeks of hearing nothing whilst the issue at hand builds up. Touch points and process junctures are two different things.

Such approaches as outlined above tend to end up with poor customer service and a pissed off tenant. Worse it can end up costing your organisation a lot of money.  This is especially relevant given the increasingly complex structure we operate under. With the boys and girls in blue winning the General Election I can only see a further move to more mergers and group structures as organisations seek to secure their long-term future.  The fact that the first ‘new’ generation of housing folk (post 1960s) is up for retirement soon may also be a factor.  But that could just be me being mischievous…

My all time favourite story on poor communication involves windows (the see through things, not the operating system). It was recognised that a scheme with rather shabby windows was getting a lot of call outs. So the repairs team went out stripped off the paint and sanded back the wood and repaint said items. The hope being that this would reduce repeat/consistent repairs and ultimately save money. It looked lovely, until the planned maintenance contractors came out a month later, ripped the windows out and put new PVC ones in. What a mess.

But there is also a more urgent need to ensure different parts of the organisation know what each other is doing. Every organisation has ‘names’, customers that through acute vulnerabilities, bloody-mindedness, or with nothing better to do, cause havoc. This is often containable and manageable with frontline staff. But such individuals are persistent and will call every number they can find. Well intentioned back office staff (like myself) may end up kicking a hornets nest by accident. Fundamentally not only are such occurrences time-consuming, they are also costly. Your CRM processes should enable you to pick up a quick back story before calling. This will enable a coherent riposte and avoid re-opening grievances. Failure to do so risks unravelling months of work at a stroke.

Probably just as effective is ensuring that you facilitate cross team communication.  A simple but effective method is getting your housing officer (or equivalent), income officer (or equivalent) and repairs team member responsible for an area to meet regularly.  This can be tricky if repairs are held externally but by enabling the 3 main threads of a tenancy to intertwine you can share valuable knowledge and experience.  And keep everyone on message.  If you have a mixed housing/income officer set where low arrears are handled by housing officers, stop, now.  You are about 5 years behind the curve.  For some interesting facts and figures on this changing side of housing check Pawson et al.’s now slighted dated work for the TSA.

Moral of the story? Well, as Bob Hoskins used to say (ironically enough in an advert for a company known for its crap customer service) “It’s good to talk”. As organisation get ever larger and more complex (I’ve not even touched on the role contractors play in this) ensuring clear communication channels is paramount. It is also good to make the most of your CRM. Drill home its importance and invest in its use. Oh and always make sure your repairs and maintenance teams keep in touch.

Feeling depressed? Don’t worry, all is not lost and in particular from my pub experience there is happy ending. Warriors smashed it to reach the Play Off finals and we went home and made our own dessert #winning.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Social landlords have often been left open to the charge of being too quiet on the issues that affect their customer base. In the interest of self-preservation it may now be necessary to become a bit more vocal.

The social housing sector is often caught between a rock and a hard place. We operate in, provide homes for and work with, those on the margins of society. However we are also compelled to work within a highly political context. Not only dealing with whims of Central Government, contradictory policies from different departments. But also muppets who have epiphanies on inner city housing estates in Glasgow (who then go and miss the point of said epiphany). And that is before the minefield of dealing with a myriad set of Local Authorities and councillors with their own agendas. As a consequence we tend to be a bit vanilla in our criticisms of Government.

A couple of pieces caught my eye earlier this week.  The first involving Isabel Hardman and how we as a sector can get more of an influence in westminster.  Noting that moaning about a policy and then using it isn’t the best move.  And that as a sector we have an image problem with the ‘Right’.  The second was from Hannah Fearn noting that too much power lies with social landlords and not enough for their tenants.  Whilst I don’t agree with all her points I am firmly with her on the statement that we should serve best our tenants, not Government.  Key to both these pieces is that they reinforce the problem for our sector.  In an attempt to be all things to all people (politically speaking) we become not much of anything.  Or worse still, we piss off all sides.

The current set of welfare reforms have never been about just getting people into work. They are cost cutting measures, part of a long-term move to reduce state support and intervention. In short, they are a neo-liberal wet dream. The problem with such fantasies is that they are often only workable for the people who dream them up. It always narks me that those who make ‘tough decisions’ have probably never really had to make a tough choice in their personal life. Well I guess if you include the horrific decisions to be made over chilli humus or quiche then maybe, but you get the point.

Yet despite the impact the reforms have on our customer base we have always been too focused on the direct impact of the changes on our bottom line and not openly angry about indirect ones.  At least not uniformly. For me this is all the more bizarre because from a housing point of view we are paying for these reforms (and associated cuts in budgets for Local Authorities) 3 times over. 1) In higher rent arrears as more draconian sanctions cut benefits for a larger group of people, who then can’t pay us. 2) Because we then have to pay for interventions to help assist those having to deal with the fall out of ‘tough decisions’. 3) We then have to pay for schemes that provide a service formerly under the auspices of local authority but jettisoned due to budget cuts. As a sector we appear to have failed to be convinced by the moral argument to publicly oppose the reforms, at least en masse. Maybe a financial one will do the trick?

There are a few that have been systematically quantifying the impact of the reforms and being very vocal about their impact.  Real Life Reform, the JRF and the LSE have all produced research pieces showing the detrimental impact of the reforms.  SHOUT have also been very active in promoting the case for more social housing and the negative impact of the current Government’s policies. But as a sector we have more often than not done the equivalent of tutting, going “too bad” and moved on.  The consequence? Just look at the figures.  The number of social homes is at its lowest for years. Capital grant is at its lowest point for decades. The number of households relying on food banks is rising, as is the number of working households claiming HB. We have gone through 3 (or is it 4?) housing ministers since 2010. Frankly that paints a picture of being crap at influencing.

The Benefit Cap and right to buy policies are popular but when people learn more about the ins and outs of many of the welfare reforms support falls (as G.I Joe always said, knowing is half the battle…). We have a Government that relies on soundbite policies delivered to an uninformed public to drive through its agenda. It is part of our duty to address this imbalance when those policies affect us and the communities we ultimately serve. But maybe that’s just me being a bit naive.

Regardless of who wins the next general election we need to look at our approach to influencing.  We need to be better at understanding how housing influences (and is influenced by) changes in other policies areas.  We need to be better at supporting our tenancy base in its battles against the unintended (and intended) consequences of poor policy decisions.  We must accept the fact that in the game of politics passivity is not an option.

You can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Fool’s Gold

You may have noticed that housing had a small get together last week.  Yea… this is another Homes for Britain rally blog.  Sorry, it’s been a long week or so and these things don’t write themselves. It was good to see such that such a large cross-section of the housing world was in attendance.  Well they appeared to be based on the tweets.  I didn’t actually speak to too many people… SHOUT were also there in force and it was good to see so many people so passionate about (let’s face it) something that is a bit mundane to the average punter.

The speakers were from all the main political parties (and UKIP) plus a selection of informed contributors. My top 3 were: Ken Loach was full of passion, a fierce wit and an utter lack of respect for time limits.  It was worth the trip alone to see him in full flow. Though sorry fella but a planned economy is never happening.  Frances O’Grady – set fire to the 3rd bar and a few more besides. Full of rage against inequality and injustice, highly articulate and definitely worth listening to.  Finally, Miriam Ahmed. Homeless at a young age, visibly pissed at the hand people can be dealt with and determined to change things for the better. If you are holding a staff conference, or simply want to remind people of why we do what we do, I would suggest getting her along.  Your staff will be singing Les Marseilles quicker than you can say to the barricades.

What was clear however, despite all the glitz and glamour was the enormity of the task ahead. Two very key contributions came from Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home. The other from Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks. Tim noting it is all well and good for all the speakers to say they believe housing is an issue at a pro-housing event but what are they saying elsewhere? Both Labour and the Lib Dems have had opportunities to do so, but haven’t.  This would suggest that neither the public or the political class deem housing to be a vote winner, not just yet at any rate.  This was supported by Deborah who pointed to the fact that polls still place housing down the agenda. That whilst people see housing as an issue they don’t see it an issue affecting them locally, something that is key.  ‘Cos you know if ain’t happening down their road most people don’t give a monkey’s.  Ironically enough a majority think more housing was needed, just not in their backyard thank you very much.

Mr Michael Green Grant Schapps duly popped in to play the pantomime villan (oh no he didn’t…sorry, I’ll stop now).  Whilst all the other parties admitted more work needed to be done on housing (well Farage just went on about brownfield sites, the days of yore and I think something about immigration) Mr Schapps sounded off a bunch of dubious figures with the general demeanour of someone stating, “you’re wrong” at every challenging remark.  He did at least manage a wry smile when reminded of his occasionally dodgy memory by the hostess with the mostess, Jonathan Dimbleby.

It was a hint of things to come from his colleague the Rt Hon Gideon George Osborne (honestly what is it with this lot and names).  In the final budget before the next General Election Mr Osborne popped out another demand side initiative.  A move that is seen as aiming to perpetuate a superficial feel good factor pre-general election. Short term political gain aside it will not do a lot (though it did get the ire of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, small mercies and all that).  Certainly it won’t help to resolve our housing crisis. The two best responses to the budget came from the JRF and Danny Dorling in the Daily Telegraph. I couldn’t put it better myself, so I won’t.

If you want a real downer from the upper that was the homes for britain rally I would suggest reading Mr Halewood’s piece on our inability to frame the terms of reference in the debate on housing.  And our failure to properly highlight our value for money to the taxpayer.  Turns out we save Joe Bloggs a bomb compared to housing poor people in private rent properties.

If you are inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Eat, sleep, collect data, repeat

Report from Sheffield Hallam University highlights the sector still has work to do around data and their approaches to Universal Credit.

So first off here’s the caveats, whilst researched and published by Sheffield Hallam the report was commissioned by Housing Partners.  Given that their primary business is heavily tied into providing IT solutions to the social housing sector a pinch of salt is needed here.  That being said SHU has a long history of research, particularly in the social housing sector.  Hell they even had the pleasure of my company for a year whilst I bumbled my way through a Masters Degree there.  Forgiving the deepest of sins (I did my undergrad degree at the University of Sheffield) #UniTilliDie and fundamentally both the report, and Housing Partners’ associated trumpeting of it, carry some weight.

Given the monumental delays, recriminations, borderline lies and fluster coming from Iain ‘never knowingly gives sound statistics’ Duncan Smith and the DWP you would be forgiven for forgetting that we are midway through the roll out of Universal Credit.  And whilst there are undoubtedly many more rocky steps to take, piss poor project management aside, it is here to stay.  It is therefore somewhat surprising to see that a number of social landlords are still in a bit of a muddle around their customer’s data.  The greatest advantage we have as a sector is that there is no element of surprise, rumblings around UC started in 2010, so we don’t really have an excuse.  But the findings from the guys and gals t’up north show the same issues that we had a couple of years ago are still around.  It does make you wonder what the fudge have we been doing?

I appreciate the monumental task at hand, particularly for the larger social landlords.  People move in and out of our properties, have kids, get married, get divorced, get married again (on a number of occasions to the person they divorced) etc etc.  Mobile phone numbers are as concrete as a chocolate tea-pot and no-one and I mean no-one takes ownership of the bloody data.  But it is not just the day to day grind around data that we appear to have a problem with.  As usual there appears to be a disconnect between the IT systems we have, and the systems we need to use.  I say this from something of an odd position because the organisations I have worked with have had pretty solid, if unspectacular IT systems. Their data collection, protection and insight processes, whilst not perfect, are pretty advanced and are being used in the correct way i.e. to inform the business and improve customer satisfaction.

The most interesting thing about the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit and now the report from SHU and Housing Partners (from a purely data point of view, not the suffering and utter shiteness of the policies themselves) is that they have illustrated how little we know about our customers.  Or in some cases our own stock. It does make you wonder what the situation would have been like without such external stimuli.  Would we as a sector remained largely oblivious to how bad our data was?

Many organisations when the Bedroom Tax came out probably looked at undertaking a census.  No doubt many who responded to SHU’s survey are thinking of doing the same again.  These bad boys are great at providing a big bang effect.  It will indicate areas where you have been lacking data (typically you will see a sudden spike in certain demographics sets) but they are only part of the solution.  It is in the day to day interactions that you will gather the majority of your information. To truly keep your data fresh you need identify how and when you and your customers interact and make the most of those opportunities.  You also need to make sure you properly store the data you already have.

I find it deeply alarming that some 42% of the 167 or so organisations surveyed admitted to using paper based systems (i.e. paper) to store some data on its tenants.  This is utterly horrendous and frankly unforgiveable.  Storing data on off-system spreadsheets is bad enough, but paper?  How the hell do you ensure any consistency, any accountability and any basic audit trail if part of your data is on paper!?  If your IT system can’t store the data you need there are plenty of options out there.  Side note, if you are procuring make sure the business and not the IT bod is the customer and the lead on the project.  IT facilitate, they don’t lead on business focused IT procurement. Though quite often no-one tells them that.

By and large data is a simple beast. Work out what you need, why you need it, how you are going to store it, how are you going to keep it fresh but most importantly how are you going to use it.  That my friends is basically it.  Everything else is just mere details.

If you feel so inclined (I wouldn’t advise it, you will be disappointed) you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.