The sector is going through some of the most transformational changes in recent history. Housing leaders must navigate the increasing demands placed on them by a number of regulatory changes, whilst also contending with tighter budgets, higher staff turnover and a growing skills gap. With so many constraints levelled against a growth in expectations, providers are having to do much more with less, and under the backdrop of an increasingly volatile macro environment.
Peter Salisbury, Director of Housing Consulting at Manifest, writes our guest piece for this edition, and highlights some of the challenges housing leaders are currently facing around service quality and building safety. Here, he explains why it’s so important to get the fundamentals right now in order to successfully navigate the future.
In almost 25 years of working in housing, there has barely been a year that couldn’t be accurately described as a time of great change (or words to that effect!), but it is true to say that the scale of change that is upon us now, is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
The focus on service quality, building safety and attitudes towards residents is quite right, but it is evident that organisations (and consultants!) everywhere are having trouble reacting to the pace of change. There are lots of reasons for this of course, but shortages of trained and competent people, rising costs, poor data and badly implemented technology all play their part. And of course, all of us are attempting to deliver change in the wider context of an environment where the Government has failed to meaningfully address the nation’s housing supply and affordability and quality crisis.
Much of what is happening is designed to address some of the core issues in the sector, but I think we are at the stage now where many organisations simply don’t have the bandwidth, or the money to address everything at once. That’s not to excuse instances of poor quality housing or service failure, but the limited number of staff doing the work simply can’t be everywhere at once.
I don’t know what the long term future holds for social housing in the UK, but in the immediate term, we could do a lot worse than focusing on getting back to some of the basics. Getting the fundamentals of service delivery right, especially around maintenance and resident safety will go a long way towards addressing the challenges and improving the overall quality of homes and services to residents when things do go wrong.
I’ve scratched out some of my thoughts on this below. I’m in no way claiming to have all of the answers and nothing of what follows is an exhaustive plan of action but perhaps pausing to help get some of the basics right will help us to make life better for residents?
Careers and Competence
In the long term, making a career in housing something that people aspire to is critical, and the sector really needs to come together quickly to think about how we can attract, train and retain everyone from tradespeople to IT, Administrators to Executive Officers. We need all of our professional bodies to come together to think about how we make housing and its associated professions attractive.
We know that minimum qualification levels are being set and that these will be compulsory for some managers and senior leaders. But what are we doing to make sure that more junior staff understand not just the mechanics of their roles, but why what they are doing matters and how it fits into the ultimate goal of providing good quality homes and services?
Also, hybrid working is here to stay, but it can make it really difficult to show new staff what “good” looks like. As someone who has worked in this way for over a decade, I’m not suggesting that we ban it, but in my experience, many organisations could structure working patterns slightly differently to maximise the time that team members have together, including building in some structured time for teams to be together that isn’t just a team meeting.
Processes: How are things done here?
It’s definitely worth doing a little bit of navel gazing to check whether your current processes are working as intended.
I’m not suggesting that Providers should all start expensive and time consuming process reviews with a cast of thousands and lots of consultants thrown in to come up with more process maps. This sort of exercise can be really useful when done properly, but in the first instance, often the best thing to do is to ask your staff what they think.
In my experience, operational staff, and ESPECIALLY administrators, have a really good understanding of what is working and where processes get blocked up. Speaking to your team and working through the issues can help to quickly unstick processes and make things work better. These conversations can also highlight issues with systems that staff are simply working around.
Even if you haven’t managed to fully map your procedures, it’s worth writing down the basic “rules of engagement” so that operational staff have something to work to. Making sure that everyone knows when to update a repair order to confirm that it is satisfactorily completed or when to mark a gas service as completed helps to drive consistency.
We know that data quality is a massive issue for most of the sector. When we audit Providers when we ask how many properties are being managed, the answer is still often an embarrassed “It depends who you ask”.
As a sector, we need to get a grip on data quality. For a long time, issues with data falling out of alignment have ended up in the “too difficult” pile. Dealing with these issues is daunting, especially if you try and fix everything at once.
In my experience, it is far better to deal with data issues in bite sized chunks. As a starting point you could:
- Establish some basic rules on data quality and where “master” data is saved.
- Appoint data champions, responsible for working with operational staff as gatekeepers for proposed changes to key data.
- Don’t walk by – Make data quality everyone’s responsibility to deal with. Make it a business rule that whoever spots an issue must report it to a data champion.
- Talk to staff about why this is important and get their suggestions for quick wins and bigger issues that need solving.
This doesn’t deal with an absence of information, and getting home condition surveys up to date is a bigger challenge, but getting some rules in place and working on problems as you find them can only help deal with bad data.
Core Systems and new Technology
New technology is a fabulous thing. Artificial intelligence, Machine Learning IOT connected devices, CRM layers and the like can be brilliant tools and it is great that the housing sector is embracing these innovations, but it is critical that we don’t lose sight of the need to make sure that existing systems are doing what they are meant to do.
It’s definitely worth engaging with your IT team and software vendors to talk about how you are using your systems and whether there is a better way to do it. The answer may be a resounding no, but often systems were set up in a very specific way for a reason that is no longer relevant (or didn’t matter that much in the first place!)
It’s vital too not to just engage at a senior and technical level for these conversations. Operational staff will likely to be able to tell you all of the things that don’t actually work at the moment!
Some suppliers are better than others at engaging, but investing time in these conversations could help deliver incremental improvements to how things work and lead directly to service improvements for residents.
Report and Act
KPI reporting is vital for operational management and good governance. And it’s worth making sure that everyone that receives KPI data understands it and is able to gain a clear view on how each measure is defined and compiled.
Beyond this though, putting together some clear structured operational reporting and a procedure for acting upon it can help reduce delayed repairs, missed property checks and ultimately help improve the quality of service to residents.
Use the data you have to draft regular reports and then empower staff to check and resolve issues that they show. Either through contractor management, engagement with trades staff, or checking for financial approvals to proceed, surveyors’ reports, etc.
This could include things like:
- Work in Progress – All open and overdue orders
- Jeopardy Work in Progress – Orders that are open and at risk of falling overdue.
- Heating repairs – Are there homes that do not have functioning heat and hot water systems?
- Damp and mould reports – Schedule of homes awaiting a visit listed by how long they have been waiting for action.
- Volume of repairs by property – Starting at the top of the list, investigate homes where high volumes of repairs have been reported.
Peter Salisbury, Director of Housing Consulting, Manifest