Warm Smiles Don’t Make You Welcome Here

Housing Associations are increasingly trapped by their own ambitions and whilst Mr Hilditch is right to highlight mission creep, the sector’s problems go deeper than simply chasing dollar signs. It still does not understand how to deliver good customer service based on the needs of its end users. Continued failure to address this issue will further erode credibility in the sector and ultimately the very values it claims to uphold.

Customer Service

For those blissfully detached from the internet over the last couple of weeks the power of failing in the very basics of customer service was beautifully highlighted by United Airlines. A fee paying passenger was physically, and very forcefully removed, (getting injured in the process) on a flight that was overbooked. Whilst initially unrepentant and largely unapologetic. Sharp drops in the company’s share prices, alongside a massive social media backlash forced the CEO Oscar Munoz to apologise. It is an extreme case, but highlights that get customer service wrong in the private sector and you will, literally, pay the price. And that’s before the inevitable lawsuit.

For me this is where a large number of the problems with the sector lie. The main focus of a business, social or otherwise, should be to ensure that the customer gets a good service. That comes from a culture that accepts and embraces customer service as a necessity. Something that social housing orgs, without the type of competition seen in the private sector, have struggled to come to terms with.

The Power of the Market, but Beware of the Dark Side

Some of the most popular apps have been developed out of a perceived need. I can order an Uber, book a table, hunt for houses to rent all on my smart phone (another need based development). Yet when it comes to social housing how progressive have we been in our service offer? As Tim Pinder has noted, only a modest number of social housing organisations offer customers the rather simple ability to book a repairs appointment online. I think he was being polite regarding his nod to the fact that in reality most of these were actually ‘fancy emails’ with a scheduler still required to actually sort the appointment. Not only does this save time and effort for customers, as Tim notes it can also deliver savings for the organisation. The two factors are not mutually exclusive.

Elsewhere opening hours continue be highly restrictive and inflexible. Opening 9am-5pm is next to useless for most people who work. So too is being open Mon – Fri. Letting agents in the private rented and home ownership sectors are open on a Saturday. This is because they recognise the need to be available at times that suit potential customers. So why aren’t social landlords who own and manage tens of thousands of units doing the same? Even banks have changed their opening times to be more customer friendly (admittedly dragging their heels the whole way). Again, why aren’t we looking at this seriously? Flexible hours of working should not just be for the benefit of staff. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting a marketisation (is that a word? It is now) of social housing, anyone who’s witnessed the basket-case of New Labour quasi-markets in the NHS will know the perils of trying to create a state-led market out of thin air†. Certainly not all organisations act in the best interests of their customers, or even the long term viability of the business. However, the lack of a need for invention combined with the nature of many of the organisations that provide social housing has inevitably left the UKHousing sector wanting in a number of ways.

Talk is Cheap

We’ve often talked about embracing the better elements of the private sector. But in reality these have largely been confined to pursuing activities that make more money (not a bad thing in and of itself). But not on the relentless, necessary drive for developing and improving products/services* or the need for good, responsive customer care. Or the requirement to design services around the needs of the customer, not around the business, or worse still – what the business thinks the needs of the end user are.

I will let others rally around the Big is Bad, Developer is bad arguments. There are truths and falsehoods there. As this documentary by Adam Curtis has noted the problems highlighted by John Harris and by Steven Hilditch on build quality and customer service are nothing new in the development of properties for the social housing sector. As with housing policy more generally these issues have a depressingly predictable tendency to come round full circle.

As ever, it depends on the organisation, the culture and the desire to improve as a business, and yes – the profit motive if you wish to improve the services you provide. Key to this is putting the customer at the forefront of what you do, otherwise it’s just lip service. A stance that ultimately will erode your service offer, trust in you as an organisation and the very values you should be standing up for. The choice is simple one, but it’s yours to make.

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

Picture Credit – Wojtek Gurak – Bouça Social Housing

†That and , you know, pretty much every single ‘communist’ country, ever.

*There are obviously some caveats here, I’ve lost count of the number of tech firms I’ve come across directly and indirectly that are flogging a bit of kit that last saw major investment when Tony Blair was still PM. But you get the gist.

 

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I am the Walrus

One of the more amusing anecdotes I’ve come across recently involves The Beatles, more specifically John Lennon. Apparently, after receiving a bit of fan mail which noted that an English teacher was getting his students to study and analyse Beatles songs, Mr Lennon decided to deliberately obfuscate future attempts. The result was I am the Walrus. If this video is anything to go by, it’s safe to say he succeeded.

Sadly it is not just long dead musicians who can baffle and befuddle those looking beyond the face value meaning of things. At play right now are a couple of pieces of policy, and legislation, that are not quite as comprehensible as they could be when the broader picture is brought into view.

The Good

There is much to be commended regarding the Homeless Reduction Bill (HRB). It has, by and large, been brought forward for the right reasons. Homelessness is increasing in pretty much every measure. Aside from the personal tragedies and traumas that play out on an individual level (the impact of which is not to be underplayed), the cost to Government (and by default you and I) is considerable. Thus both morally and financially speaking it makes sense to try to reduce homelessness by prevention as much as ‘cure’.

By extending the threshold of those threatened with homelessness from 28, to 56 days and making greater provisions to help single homeless individuals the HRB will help to plug significant gaps in LA requirements to help those at risk of homelessness. These are good, welcome measures that can hopefully be of significant benefit.

The Bad

The problem I have with the Homeless Reduction Bill is that unless significant changes to policy elsewhere are made, it is going to struggle to have any real, sustained impact. Aside from shifting blame from Central to Local Government. Dawn Foster has done a good job of noting a number of the qualms regarding the HRB here, as ever, so has Shelter. Between them they’ve highlighted that:

  • More responsibilities for LAs without long-term secure funding it not a good idea
  • Homelessness needs to be taken more serious as an issue in its own right
  • Operating in isolation the HRB will not be effective, more cross departmental working is needed

But there are further concerns that need attention here. The single largest reason for councils accepting an individual (or household) as unintentionally homeless is the ending of an assured tenancy. A part of that picture is evictions after complaints/repairs have been logged by tenants. Whilst a welcome step, as highlighted by the BBC last week there are still many issues with the Revenge Eviction legislation* and its enforcement that need ironing out.

Elsewhere, a fit for habitation clause was conspicuous by its absence in the Housing White Paper (HWP). And despite renting, and in particular Private Renting, getting a larger mention in the HWP, very little in terms of greater security or protection for those in the PRS was forthcoming.

At the same time measures set in motion under Cameron et al. will start to have an impact, notably:

All of these measures will directly and indirectly impact on the ability of individuals, charities and the state (both local and central) to counter the rising levels of homelessness. And run counter the very aims of the HRB, which seeks to reduce those without a secure home.

The Ugly

Without labouring the point it appears that a significant part of this Government’s rhetoric on helping those just about managing is just that, rhetoric. The link between housing, the welfare state, security of tenure and homelessness are not being explicitly acknowledged or acted upon. This Government seems to think it can continue to erode support via the welfare state, yet by making moderate tweaks in legislation it will solve a whole host of ills. That, quite simply, is utter bollocks.

Whilst more money has been made available for additional ‘affordable’ housing, and changes to expectations on Starter Homes put in place. The level of ambivalence to outright social housing (despite a thawing in relations between the sector and new housing minister) means a significant weapon in reducing homelessness is being left in the armoury. Don’t believe me, ask Finland.

Fundamentally homelessness, housing provision and support go hand in hand. You either pay upfront via capital grant for more housing and preventative support services for greater levels of assistance; or you pay time and time again via acute/emergency housing relief for an increasing number of people. It is that simple. Failure to recognise that fact means for all its good intentions the Homeless Reduction Bill is on dodgy foundations before it even starts. Something that, given wider issues with our housing system, we can ill afford.

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

Photo Credit – Nico Hogg (2008) Innis House, East Street

*Last year the Government, heels dragging, eventually did support a Revenge Eviction Bill. No thanks to Philip Davies and Christopher Chope. Muppets.

 

Are We Nearly There Yet?

Whilst significant inroads have been made at Government level, popular support for state provision of housing, and the welfare state more generally, is still an issue that needs addressing. And as the regulator is busy ruffling feathers by making history repeat, as a sector we need to avoid the same old mistakes and convince the public of our worth, and the cost of decades of policy failure.

Different Year, Same Story, Pretty Much the Same Blog

A few months down the line since the madness of the post Post Brexit vote the Government of the day may be listening more, but public support is scattergun at best. And with backing for welfare spending in continuing decline, particularly when looking at out of work benefits such as unemployment benefit, we need to look at how we sell ourselves. Because, like it or not, we as a sector are inexorably tied to welfare spending and the welfare state more generally. Probably doesn’t help that for the taxpayer our core business model always has been, and most likely always will be, give us loads of your money and we will build houses for people other than you to live in. At a price cheaper than you pay for yours. That’s about as tough a job as an ice cube seller in the Arctic i.e. damned difficult, and we need to get better at it.

Pay Your Money, We’ll Have to Take Your Choice

Given what has been mentioned above, numerous Governments have sought to withdraw state intervention in the housing market. But as David Bentley over at Civitas has noted, just as Governments have sought to reduce their role. More and more they’ve actually had to prop up the private market. Largely due to policies that have focused on demand side fixes.  Thus perpetuating a cycle where the very measures sought to increase the ability of consumers to purchase housing ends up pushing houses further out of their reach.

A number have sought to highlight the utter absurdities of demand side policies and house prices. Seriously, the more you dip into George Osborne’s housing policies, the more idiotic they appear. Others have noted the positive financial impact genuinely social housing can provide. But it’s tying it altogether that has been the difficult part. Namely because it involves pointing the finger at those who’ve been making batshit mental policy decisions in recent years and going – these fuckers don’t have a bloody clue what they are doing – and then trying to work with them.

Is there a Point to All this?

Kind of. As a sector we may have a more benign Government in power, but we have failed to convince the general public that we are providing value for money. In the long-term that will be a killer. For all the KPIs we produce about performance, for all the smoke and mirrors about being upfront about our costs and what we deliver. We need to drive home the value of what we do. For whilst there is a groundswell politically for investment and support in what we do. In the mind of the General Public the battle is far from won.

As the incumbents in power realise they need to do more than simply cut corporation tax to help JAMs, Marmalades and other food groups. We need to take advantage and reach out beyond our usual audience. Because unless we state in plain and simple terms, very clearly and very loudly what we do, why we do it and how well we do it. And repeat Ad Nauseum (I call this the Farage method of mass communication). We’ll be left in vacuum of rumour, misinformation and gossip. That helps no-one, least of all us.

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

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

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?”

How to Make Friends and Influence People

It is a broken record on repeat but the sector needs to do more to get heard outside of the bubble that is housing.

About 18months ago I moved to deepest, darkest Warwickshire, Bidford on Avon to be precise. It’s the kind of place where time hasn’t so much stood still but lost all interest and buggered off elsewhere. For me and the lady-friend, who like busy cities the same way the Body Coach likes a greasy kebab after an all day session down the Winchester, it suits quite well. However, one of the things we hadn’t expected was the reaction of some of the locals.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Bidford, like most of Warwickshire, is as about as Blue as you can get without seeing portraits of Margaret Thatcher in every living-room. It is conservative with small, medium and large C’s. Whilst I had clocked this early on in the move I hadn’t quite clocked what impact it might have. As a keen gym enthusiast (the heavy weight, not treadmill running kind) I’m pretty much as broad as I am tall (being 5ft 8inch helps). I’m reasonably tattooed with a full sleeve supplemented by a half sleeve and a chest piece. Finally, I own a Staffie. In short, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and frankly neither are they mine.

Exhibit A – World’s Least Dangerous Dog

The first time I saw a middle age woman clock me and my dog, stop, then walk across the road it made me laugh. After the 3rd or 4th time it really began to piss me off, I swear I could hear the anuses clenching as I went past. After a while, and through general interaction with people in the village such instances became rarer. More so after many people actually stopped to chat to the dog (yes, people do that). These days the local teenagers refer to her as “Well cute” whilst my general presence appears to be accepted.

What happened? Well, me and the lady-friend made a conscious effort to show that both of us, and our dog were perfectly normal everyday people and posed no threat/ill to anyone. Essentially we went outside our own bubble. In many ways social housing is still yet to do this. Neil Jackson (all the cool people are called Neil…) provided what I thought was the best blog of Housing Day by highlighting this point. For all the effort (hats off to Ade Capon, the lad has worked tirelessly to grow the event) given on the day how many outside the bubble came across it/engaged with it? A snap poll with the Lady-friend concluded, not many. I won’t bore you with her precise words but they were akin to, “Oh, that thing OK…”.

All is not lost

Scientifically valid checks against impact aside (see here for the actually rather impressive figures). The sector is still capable of influence Central Government policy. One of the greatest examples can be seen with Shared Ownership. Consistent targeted lobbying alongside co-ordinated work has seen something that frankly has been a backwater bolt on to social housing gain significant traction.  To the point where there may genuinely be a ‘fourth tenure’ of mainstream housing in this country.

Such an achievement didn’t come through the back slapping, circle-jerk that the sector is occasionally prone to. And whilst warmer noises have been coming from the new-look Government, they frankly couldn’t have been much colder. Nick ‘Kind of Stating the Obvious’ Clegg’s serialised memoirs in the Guardian (let’s face it, no-one else would bloody do it) have highlighted what many thought. That a significant part of the Conservative Party is hostile to social housing and see it as a Labour Voter breeding machine. Let’s hope Mr Barwell’s warm noises come to something. Historically the NHF Conference has led to conciliatory noises from Government followed by business as usual. Real change occurs outside our housing bubble.

The above does raise the old ‘what does it all mean/what should we build question’. But I loathe the term used to describe the intersection of two roads. And quite frankly the mid-life crisis that is the sector’s inability to decide what it wants to be is starting to bore. So I shall ignore it here.

Regardless, continuing to speak to, and build bridges with, those who have not been traditional bed-fellows is a must. Pushing how good the sector is, and what it can bring to the table is also essential. Alongside Health and Education, housing is one of the 3 pillars a person builds their life on. It is something that everyone needs and can understand the importance of. Even if how someone conceptualises what a safe and secure home looks like is different, we all need one. The trick is to tap into that and tie it to how we can help this Government achieve its aims of more housing for all.

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

It’s Always the Quiet Ones

Organisational change will always have its challenges, some of which can be anticipated, others not so much. Whilst a lot of focus is spent on those near the top of the pay scale in terms of undermining change, it’s actually those closer to the ground floor that can put a real dampener on proceedings. Managing messages, engagement and understanding staff motivation(s) is therefore key.

A Little Anecdote

On my way to work there is a Shell Petrol Station (other destroyers of the Earth are available). Recently they’ve deemed fit to stop people parking on a bit of green adjacent to them. To try to do this in a not-so-dickish way they put in big concrete plant pots. What they hadn’t counted on was the tenacity of locals in wanting to park their cars for free. In short, people just parked between the aforementioned plants. A week later work men are back on the scene and by the end of the day even more plant pots have arrived and now no-one can park there. Moral of the story? People don’t like being forced to change the way they’ve always done things. You may have to leave them no option.

Things to Consider

A bit like Leadsom referring to herself as a mother to validate her view of macro-economic policy, yet taken as trashing a rival, what a person says and what other people hear are two different things. People looking to get other staff to ‘buy in’ to change tend to ignore that what the phrase means in practice i.e:

‘I want to change the way you work, hopefully for the better, but I’m not 100% sure on that. You agreeing with me makes this process a lot easier, so JFDI*.’

Not nearly as succinct, or cushty is it? But it is a more honest statement around organisational change. For many change is not an opportunity, it is more work on top of what is an already challenging workload. Often because someone at mid-to-senior level saw something at an un-conference and thought it would work rather neatly in their part of the business. Perception is key here. People who have been in a role for a while will carry on doing what they’ve always done until utterly forced otherwise. Because people are naturally cautious, careful beasts that mitigate change to the best of their abilities. Well, for the most part they are. You’ll always have a couple of nutters who want to go try something new like extreme ironing.

*Just Fucking Do It

So What to Do?

Like it or lump it, winning hearts and minds is fundamental to instigating embedded change. Because despite what a number of consultancy hawks post on twitter “Innovator Destroyers in Chief” aren’t always the heads of needless bureaucracies. Often it’s actually front line staff who are pissed off with moving goal posts and have no desire to retrain that are the most efficient change blockers.

Fundamentally what people want is to be able to do their job easier, without any risk to their livelihood. But what they hear when the change word, or its pumped up cousin transformation, is mentioned is re-structure. A phrase which is, rightly or wrongly, intrinsically associated with job cuts. Given the fact that Housing Associations go through a restructure every 2-3 years people can get battle weary. Your Top-Down Approach To Transformation (TDATT for short, the D is silent), is just another set of jobs cuts and unwelcome upheaval unless explicitly, and painstakingly, proven otherwise.

I should probably state that having been through restructures and mergers in my few years in Housing this is one of the areas I am actually a bit of an optimist. Organisations need to develop, to evolve, to grow. Stagnation is the death of a business, social or otherwise. And where change happens, so opportunities grow. But I don’t have kids, or a mortgage to worry about. What I would recommend is less time on flashy slide shows and focus more on the communication of the change; why it’s happening, will it affect jobs, what are its benefits. Otherwise your change will fail.

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

UK Housing Policy: A mess years in the making

Insecure tenancies and poor quality housing are health issues, they should be treated as such. Investment in all of the 3 main types of housing tenure and reform of Private Rented Housing is needed to avoid a crisis evolving into a full on catastrophe.

Political Failure Manifest

Complicated is what we use to avoid simple truths (Some bloke off the internet, 2016)

The modern-day crises that make up the UK Housing crisis are a complex mish-mash of competing and conflicting needs.  More housing is desperately needed, but no Government wants to dampen house prices when the economy and individual wealth creation are heavily tied to ever-increasing house prices. To get around this tricky issue, Cameron et al have attempted to side step the main problem at hand i.e. instead of increasing the supply of the right type of housing in the right areas they have deliberately mis-identified the actual problem (of supply) with an easier issue to solve (demand). Why? Because simpler problems are easier to fix.

As Campbell Robb noted the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public has longed been lost in relation to social housing provision. So it seems has all logic. We want our kids to get housing of their own, to be able to afford to buy, but for our own house prices to keep on rising. With Teresa May now PM it remains to be seen if the over-focus on Home Ownership will continue, Jules Birch fears, just like Teresa, it May (sorry…too tempting).

Poor quality housing is a public health issue, treat it as such

As the social housing sector has been allowed to dwindle, those who used to be on the margins of being accepted into social rent have had to turn to the private sector. In the South and South East this has put an inevitable strain on housing, pushing rent prices further away from affordable levels. This in turn has led to families unable to buy, but ineligible to rent social housing relying on insecure private sector tenancies. It is no surprise that the number one reason for being made homeless in the UK is the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). Insecure, poor quality housing can be just as detrimental as being homeless, all being linked to:

A parallel issue is poor quality housing. It is not uncommon to see news reports on landlords who have not just violated HMO rules, they’ve jumped up and down on them, popped them in one of those circus canons and blown them apart as spectacularly as Michael Gove’s leadership bid. I’m sure the resistance to any kind of further regulation and licensing of private landlords has nothing to do with the fact that a large part of MPs are landlords themselves, but the wilful inertia needs to stop. In the right conditions Private Renting is a very good form of housing provision, the majority of landlords are good. But when lack of alternatives are driving those in the bottom income quartile to beds in sheds, overcrowded and frankly dangerous housing, the buck needs to stop.

So why are we not doing more to battle this?

I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my boy. [I’m] Fed up of moving all the time.

The current Tory Government will argue that via RTB2, Help to Buy and Shared Ownership they’re helping those like my friends (and me). But whilst there are a plethora of products designed to facilitate access to home ownership, many simply just aren’t suitable for those who most need it. We need a Government to invest in all 3 of the main tenures in this country, because what we have right now is poorly channelled money and whimsical, wishful thinking. Post EU Referendum I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Let’s take back control of something that actually matters, our housing policy.

The above quote is symptomatic one of a many up and down the country having to juggle affordable private renting, school and the need to provide secure home for their kids. It’s from a mate of mine, one of at least 3 in the same situation. As a private renter myself I’m one legal notice and 2 months away from homelessness at any given time. So pardon me if I sound a little pissy at A) the lack of action and B) the wrong policies being pushed.

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