Virtual Roundtable: Firm foundations for empowered communities

Our latest roundtable looked at how data, analysis and collaboration technology could help the sector empower local communities.
Guests at our latest virtual roundtable in July 2021. They are in a Microsoft Teams call.

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Social housing plays a key role in local communities, but creating places where people are proud to live is not just a case of providing bricks and mortar. Instead, housing providers must make long-term investments to empower communities to influence decisions in their area.

This is especially important with the advent of the Social Housing White Paper, which will strengthen the voice of social housing tenants and make landlords more accountable for the services they deliver. With this will come the requirement that housing providers better understand their tenants, while also providing access to information at the right level, at the right time and in the right way.

One tool that housing associations are using to understand the “where” and “why” in their business is geospatial technology. For example, software provider Esri UK is currently working with around 100 housing associations using geographic information systems (GIS), informing their work on areas such as asset management, neighbourhoods, repairs and maintenance, health and safety, and fire audits.

Our latest virtual roundtable, then, sought to discuss how data, analysis and collaboration technology can help deliver the sector’s aspirations to empower local communities. How can housing providers make tenants’ lives better through improved engagement and increased empowerment, and how can they harness the technology available to do this?

We kicked things off by asking our guests what they are doing to enable tenants to have genuine opportunities to influence decisions. James Haigh, enhanced tenancy services manager at Yorkshire Housing, outlined the landlord’s use of geospatial tools, which enable it to map areas and create stock groups. It also has a customer voice panel and a volunteer framework which aims to give customers work experience within the organisation.

The landlord is keen to get more customers involved, especially young and ethnic minority people, with Yorkshire Housing covering a diverse range of communities from rural villages to urban settlements – a challenge that no doubt many other providers share.

“We’ve moved away from the old ways of engagement like door-knocking and mailout and we’re looking at new ways of engagement that can be quite hit and miss [such as] social media,” Haigh said. “Are we engaging some of our young customers? It is a hot topic at Yorkshire Housing. It’s something that we’re doing a lot of work on.”

Jahanara Rajkoomar, director of community investment at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing (MTVH), agreed on the importance of engaging with as wide a variety of tenants as possible, with the pandemic demonstrating a widespread willingness to start doing things in a different way. She noted the “clunky” nature of some providers’ online systems, hinting that improving them would allow housing associations to better hear from a representative majority of residents.

“Just this morning I was checking my council tax and [wanted to] update my information – it was really easy,” Rajkoomar said. “How do we make it really easy for our customers to come and talk to us?”

Shaun Carr, director of property at Anchor Hanover Group, said it would be “remiss” for social landlords not to learn from retail and insurance, sectors which attract virtually every demographic. Anchor have set up an online “Connected Club”, for example. This aims to make completing surveys convenient for residents, allowing them to provide feedback in their own time. Jo-anne Parkinson, tenant voice lead at Gentoo, noted Gentoo’s new strategy of getting tenants involved in all board decisions, including deciding which colours to paint their homes.

“It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about simplifying and giving access to the right information,” Carr explained. “The white paper talks about access to information and provisions… We can see that as a threat, or as an opportunity to say, ‘If we share where we are, open-book style within reason… you might have a view that helps us shape what we need to do as we don’t have all the answers.’ I think all the honesty and openness and embracing that… It can give us opportunities.”

This led to the question of how housing providers can effectively gather insight from tenants to better understand their expectations, with the pandemic changing how tenants engage with housing associations. Haigh outlined how Yorkshire Housing is looking to revitalise its 17 community centres throughout Yorkshire after the pandemic, with one centre in Skipton particularly busy.

Parkinson noted that COVID-19 has changed how residents communicate with Gentoo, with tenants now “heavily” contacting the housing association via Facebook. Gentoo is subsequently redirecting resources internally to cope with this new method of communication.

“We’ve created our own Facebook group which only tenants can join,” Parkinson explained. “We’ve just set that up in the last few weeks. It’s been a lot of work because people instant message you through there to try and get a quick response.”

Carr agreed that housing associations are probably getting more messages from residents than ever, arguing that the sector has “never had greater engagement with tenants”. However, he noted that this engagement is becoming increasingly fragmented: “There’s only so much ad-hoc communication you can deal with,” he said. Carr stressed the importance of formalising this engagement and offering tenants a consistent experience, another lesson to be learned from the e-commerce sector.

“It’s [providing] that consistency of experience to make sure you’re not getting a quicker response if you message the chief exec compared to the main channels,” Carr explained. “Even five years ago it wasn’t the same, so we’re having to work a lot harder to keep up. Acknowledging there’s a Facebook culture out there is the way forward, not trying to suppress it.”

There is no doubt that data, analysis, and collaboration technology can help housing associations deliver a better experience for tenants while increasing efficiency. Rajkoomar noted that the sector often refers to residents as “customers” but does not set its standards “anywhere near” those of other sectors, even related ones like hospitality. She said that data analytics could help providers pick up on concerns raised by tenants in calls and written feedback.

“I actually changed a service provider because they didn’t come within a week,” Rajkoomar said. “I expected them to come within the next day, they didn’t, so I cancelled that policy. [Where] is that standard [of] what I want if something’s going wrong in my house with my customers? We need to pick up on the stuff we don’t really pick up on or pay attention to.”

The panel agreed that housing associations must be clear on what they offer, while acknowledging their range of services and stakeholder groups. Technology could help provide that information, with Carr suggesting online portals to allow easy access to compliance certificates.

In the end, Carr said, all residents want is “quite basic information”, like how their money is spent and how services are provided. “It seems like that’s all doable to me,” he concluded. “The challenge is for us to get on and do it really.”

Our final question touched upon how to identify the best options for development and ensure that providers create places in which people are proud to live. For Marcus Hanke, chief executive at LandClan, good development is about pairing stakeholders with places that meet their living requirements, and effectively engaging with local communities.

With housing associations tasked with balancing different segments of the community, getting that information right is essential to avoid creating future social problems. “The residents in the area you live are central to creating those right places,” Hanke said. “In the end you’ve got to have a human in the middle.”

Housing providers are sometimes “overzealous” in their drive to build more homes, the panel argued, failing to understand what residents truly want and need such as corner shops, bus routes and green space. Sometimes such situations aren’t social landlords’ fault, in the case of homes acquired through section 106 agreements. For the most part, though, it’s a case of “closing the loop” – not just obtaining the right information but reacting in the right way to it.

Building healthy communities is a difficult balancing act, then, and even the latest technology isn’t a panacea. Instead, what it might do is help housing associations use information and tenant engagement in a more meaningful way. While no one landlord does this perfectly, Carr believes that listening – and acting on what one learns – is a good place for housing providers to start.

“I think it’s working back from need and then fitting opportunities to it, rather than starting with the shiny new thing and looking at [which] problems it’s solving,” Carr concluded. “[It’s] starting with the problem and seeing where it takes them.”

Image: Guests at our latest virtual roundtable in July 2021. Credit: Housing Executive.

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