What are the best ways to hear the resident voice?

Yvonne Davies and Gemma Bell explore some examples of how social housing providers are raising the bar on resident engagement.
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As we reflect on another anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the results of a recent YouGov poll where 40% of people say they feel a stronger sense of community than they did before the pandemic, it really is time to consider the opportunities presented for the future of resident involvement.

The Social Housing White Paper sets out an expectation that landlords will be required to seek out best practice and consider how they can continually improve how they engage with their tenants.

Even while we wait for these proposals to be implemented, there are already obligations to consider under the 2020 National Housing Federation Code of Governance (and other codes of governance which we are seeing providers adopt, such as the Charity Governance Code) which suggest a need for a much greater resident/stakeholder focus.

There will be further drivers to consider resident engagement when the Building Safety Bill is passed and implemented, with new requirements to embed resident engagement strategies for higher-risk buildings.

With that in mind, we look at some examples of best practice in the sector and how we can raise the bar on resident engagement.

Leading the way

It should be said that this is not just a reactive response by landlords to the upcoming changes proposed under the Social Housing White Paper – there are already many great examples of housing providers actively seeking to engage with their residents, and we have, of course, seen the excellent adoption levels of the Together With Tenants Charter. Within this article we seek to highlight some ideas which you could consider within your organisation, but these should of course be tailored appropriately to meet the needs of your own tenants.

Customer governance/strategic engagement

We have seen an increase in customer committees of the Board, either within the governance structure, or with the freedom to act outside the governance structure – but with a “dotted line” to another appropriate committee or the Board.

The customer committee should be recognised as being responsible for holding the landlord to account for transparency, engagement and compliance with the consumer standards. The make-up of such committees can be adjusted to fit your organisation – for example, the committee could consist of residents and board members in equal measure, a resident majority or wholly residents.

A customer committee will generally have powers to agree customer-facing policies, have oversight and call-in for performance improvement and also be able to instigate customer research projects, to further improve customer insight into problem areas. The Committee then reports its actions, insight and minutes into the governance structure.

Yorkshire Housing’s Customer Voice and Review Committee (CVRC) report recommendations outside their remit to the Homes and Places Committee of the Board. CVRC has 100% customer members, who act as a sounding board and critical friend to Yorkshire Housing and act as contributors to strategic decision making in relation to all customer facing services. The committee chair has a mentor for external support and challenge. Training and development are based on generative governance as well as involvement techniques.

South Cambridgeshire District Council has also set up a Housing Engagement Board for similar purposes with elected members and elected resident representatives.

Reviewing involvement approaches

Task and finish meetings can be useful to “deep dive” issues in communities. They offer support to officers to develop their thinking in policy review areas and suggest service improvements. Residents (invited by the landlord) usually meet two to four times in quick succession and are supported to first understand the issue/working environment and then to give their opinion.

Cobalt Housing’s spotlight reviews are a great example of quick and effective resident suggestions for improvement, which are completed between meetings of the Homes and Neighbourhood Committee, bringing residents’ viewpoints to the Board. Residents also see the results of engagement making a difference.

There’s also been a greater interest in digital engagement to achieve similar results. With some initial outlay for software, the end results are nothing short of brilliant, bringing in new, and often younger and more diverse, voices, previously unheard. Community Gateway Preston’s Community Gateway is a great example.

Tamar Housing Society also took a fresh approach, which gave the added bonus of a new, younger resident audience engaging with them on Facebook. During lockdown, they managed to get just under a third of their residents engaging on #MaintenanceMonday – repair and maintenance advisors were available via Facebook weekly, giving an instant, more accessible way to communicate with staff.

The success led to enlarging the offer to #SafetySaturday to advise residents on testing carbon monoxide detectors, fire safety issues and also online scammers, leading to newly organised focus groups on evacuation plans, service checks and hearing expert talks. Tamar have since launched mental health awareness through #WellbeingWednesday. Where buy-in to the Facebook site was low, a campaign to raise awareness as part of lockdown wellbeing calls continued to push this engagement.

User-centred design and resident researchers

This approach seeks to improve services through involving residents and service users in their design, as well as asking residents to carry out research on behalf of the landlord into customers’ perspectives and needs.

Yvonne recently worked with the Leeds City Council Scrutiny Board who found that residents get a very different response to staff when inviting opinions. The Scrutiny Board felt that the results appeared more honest and more reflective of their expectations of survey outcomes. Resulting improvements at the Council included tackling the pinch points of choice-based lettings and automated services on rents.

Leeds Jewish Housing Association also created resident ambassadors – street or block representatives to buddy with housing services officers, with no meeting structure. This light touch engagement approach involves volunteers prepared to give a heads up on local issues to their landlord, giving a real insight into the communities the landlord serves. From light touch engagement, we will get our new grass roots of more heavily involved residents.

Working with local panels

The legacy we don’t want to lose after COVID is the successful partnerships which blossomed with resident and community associations. These gave a lifeline and helping hand to many residents during lockdown.

Network Homes’ Local Panels worked on developing their resident-led trust indicator, taking impetus from the “Respect” commitment in the Together with Tenants Charter. Network discussed with their Panels what might represent a consistent delivery of services over a long time, with effective communication and transparency of decision making. From their local challenge to be more like “Ocado”, Network developed a new Network reported indicator on trust, from residents’ views. A trust survey to 1200 representative residents each year is now reported on alongside transparent operational measures (right first-time repairs, calls answered and dealing with complaints on time).

Assessing and preparing for change

We saw a number of landlords working with their residents to carry out assessments against the new Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code last year and identifying improvements which went beyond just the requirements of the Code.

Some landlords have also been working alongside their strategic customer groups in readiness for the changes proposed under the Social Housing White Paper in relation to consumer regulation, under which tenant satisfaction and engagement will have a much greater focus.

As an example, Salix Homes wrote to all customers to consult on the proposals in the Social Housing White Paper and the CEO and executive director held video conference sessions for residents to ask questions about it.

Salix has also worked with its Customer Committee about the number of charters, service standards and promises within the business. Their advice back was that any new charter should be easily accessible to all residents, delivered with passion and should embed the NHF’s Together with Tenants.

Meanwhile, Harrogate Council is training and supporting involved residents to review consumer standards compliance.

We are also seeing a resurgence in residents as mystery shoppers, greater use of customer insight surveys and better consideration of how to use transactional data to inform on satisfaction. A cultural shift in how complaints data is viewed and used will also be essential and spending time on understanding and reversing dissatisfaction is key to overall improvements in resident satisfaction.

Key takeaways to consider in engaging residents:

  • Frame your questions well, make it clear what you’re asking and well and what results engaging will achieve.
  • Explore and challenge barriers to engagement and engage residents in identifying such barriers e.g. timing of meetings/online sessions, using a variety of methods of engagement (including digital and face-to-face), consider properly whether barring certain residents (e.g. those in arrears) is the right approach.
  • Reach out to your diverse communities e.g. engage with community leaders and religious institutions in your communities, go out to communities and try to address any issues which may be preventing communities from wanting to engage.
  • Engage your staff in the changes and gather their great ideas. Challenge staff to each bring forward residents, new to engagement
  • Make the data you gather easy to process and reflect on.
  • Record actionable insights and advice from residents – we may soon be asked by the Regulator for outcomes from our engagement.
  • Thank residents and demonstrate the results of engagement e.g. show how engagement has shaped action/decision-making.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new!

Yvonne Davies is a self-employed consultant at www.ydconsultants.co.uk and works nationally to train, review and develop bespoke projects relating to customer and community engagement, governance, equalities and complaints management. Yvonne runs the National Resident Involvement Conference and National Tenants Panel Conference, jointly with the Northern Consortium, and is also a board member at Steve Biko HA and Cobalt Housing.

Gemma Bell is a partner and head of the housing corporate and governance team at Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP. Gemma has significant experience of delivering a wide range of guidance on regulatory and charity law issues and is a “go to” person for governance advice in the social housing sector.

Image credit: Pixabay.

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