Josh Armstrong, Housing sector specialist at Latcham Direct, shares his thoughts on why Housing Associations throughout the UK need to consider how data, print and digital services can improve the way in which they can engage with residents and the wider community.
Housing associations are playing an increasingly vital role supplying social housing in the UK. Whether that’s providing affordable accommodation for families on low incomes; sheltered housing and extra care services; homes for people with disabilities or temporary housing for those who need extra support.
However, associations are finding themselves under more pressure than ever before. Government austerity measures, central funding freezes and sweeping changes to the welfare system combined with the UK’s chronic housing shortage means these are challenging times for the social housing sector.
The shift towards Universal Credit will continue to have a significant impact on housing associations, making it crucial for them to communicate with tenants on a regular basis – providing additional tenant support and advice and getting more involved in managing rent collections and arrears.
At the same time, housing associations are being asked by regulators to demonstrate real value for money while delivering high quality, cost effective services. Much of this needs to be digitally driven in line with the Government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy to bridge the digital divide and provide more web-based government services to streamline and improve processes and save time and money.
These changes are inevitably having a huge impact on the way housing associations interact with and communicate with citizens. Their duty of care to tenants means that they need to respond quickly and effectively to their customer’s requirements and all communications need to be handled efficiently and professionally.But of course, this is easier said than done.
While the benefits of regular, online communications with tenants cannot be emphasised enough, one of the key challenges is ensuring housing associations have the technology and resources in place to deliver the goods.
To succeed in today’s increasingly digital world, housing associations need to embrace digital transformation by investing in new platforms, redesigning existing operational processes and working on increasing collaboration.
Proper investment in a digital infrastructure will enable housing associations to streamline costs, improve operational efficiency and concentrate on creating a new, improved experience for tenants.
Of course, this comes at a significant cost at the outset and this is one of the paradoxes faced by housing associations suffering from a squeeze on margins. Investment is essential to benefit from cost savings in the longer-term. Vast savings can be made on administration and staff costs. In addition, online systems are far easier to manage, records kept track of and analytic tools used to monitor performance data and benchmark customer services to improve service user experience.
There is growing acknowledgement that digital transformation plays a crucial role in encouraging citizen engagement, providing multiple accessible channels to enable tenants to proactively self-serve.
A mixed picture
However, it has to be said that there are significant inconsistencies when it comes to digital adoption in housing associations throughout the country. And this was a pervading theme at the recent 13th annual National Housing Federation event I attended in London earlier this month.
According to Focal Research, there are at least 1174 housing associations operating in the UK, each at a different stage in their digital maturity.Many housing associations are behind the curve with a large number still fully reliant on ad hoc legacy systems that are inefficient.
Often, the technology employed is fragmented and the processes sluggish.In some cases, tenants fill in paper-based application forms which are then inputted and then manually assessed and followed up by telephone or email communications. Digital technology is used minimally by some associations, hampered by old internal structures, constraints on budget and a general reluctance to invest in new ways of working digitally.
On the other hand, some housing associations are well on the path to digital transformation. A case in point is Yarlington Housing Group, a leading housing provider with over 10,000 properties in a range of tenures across the South West of England.
It has launched a new digital portal specifically for its customers – My Yarlington. The new online channel makes it much easier for customers to get in touch and communicate digitally. It also enables 24/7 access to information and advice – something which was not previously available.
Using their own personal account number, Yarlington tenants can log on to manage their account, make payments, report and book repairs and find answers to any questions they may have.
The portal is extremely easy to use with simple icons making the user’s journey as easy and intuitive as possible. Moreover, the site can be used on any device and has been made accessible with the use of all recognised third-party software (e.g. screen readers for the visually impaired).
To help ensure tenants are confident in using My Yarlington, free training sessions have been provided across the region and an in-house digital bar providing online assistance set up during office hours.
Other digital adoption success stories include: Birmingham City Council with 97% of its tenants now completing forms online; Bristol City Council which has used digital technology to take 60 of its neighbourhood managers out of the office and completely mobile – using tablets, they now log all incidents and issues remotely contributing to a £10 million saving during the next three years and Croydon London Borough Council whose ‘Digital and Enabling’ programme is set to deliver a £20 million saving by 2017-18[i]
A digital future
It’s clear the future is digital but more transformation is required to reap the benefits. Whatever stage housing associations are on the digital journey, replacing paperwork with less manually intensive digital applications, encouraging more integration with internal systems and processes and working towards web and portal communication is a huge step forward and will only increase citizen engagement and participation in the longer-term.