On Tuesday 7th December I chaired “The Social Housing Tenants Engagement Event 2021” for Government Events. That entailed making some preliminary remarks and some closing reflections. I have amalgamated these comments into this blogpost.
How best to engage social housing residents in the management and governance of their housing is a longstanding issue. The debate has waxed and waned but has been ongoing for fifty years. It has recently been given new impetus by revelations following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Broadly speaking we can think of engagement processes as springing from two different understandings of the role of residents.
First, there are consumerist approaches.
Gathering information from individual tenants in the form of measures of satisfaction or net promoter scores gives the organisation intelligence on how its performance levels and reputation are perceived. This type of information collection might take the form of establishing a standing consumer panel rather than relying on one-off interactions.
Public reporting of key performance indicators allows tenants to understand how their landlord is using resources and how it is performing – perhaps in comparison with sector averages or benchmarked against selected comparators. This gives tenants as individuals or in groups a resource with which to hold their landlord to account.
Complaints procedures offer tenants dissatisfied with the service they have received a route to seeking redress.
Flows of information can be two way, but they are all founded on a separation between the role of provider and consumer. Such consumerist relationships can be largely reactive and relatively passive, or the landlord can proactively promote this type of engagement by its consumers.
Second, there are more direct approaches, sometimes referred to as citizenship approaches.
Citizenship approaches seek to engage tenants more actively through direct contributions to strategy and decision-making or through performing a formal scrutiny function. Some citizenship approaches – such as neighbourhood forums – seek to engage tenants as a group, whereas others draw on the experiences and expertise of individual tenants.
Housing organisations can, of course, implement systems of resident involvement that combine both approaches and try to strike an appropriate balance between the two.
Whichever approach is taken there are plenty of challenges in giving real substance to such engagement.
A new sense of urgency has been injected into this issue following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The tragedy highlighted significant questions about the responsiveness of the landlord to tenants’ concerns and complaints. The overriding impression was of a landlord that simply wasn’t listening.
The Government has moved to address concerns through the publication of a Green Paper in 2018 and a subsequent White Paper – The charter for social housing residents – at the start of 2021. The White Paper advocates for a combination of consumerist and citizenship approaches to tenant engagement. Some of the measures are being taken forward by the Regulator of Social Housing, but a chunk of the agenda requires – and awaits – legislation to make it a reality. The thrust of the agenda is to require social landlords to demonstrate that they are proactive in engaging their tenants and that such engagement has an impact on the way the organisation runs.
Alongside these new imperatives towards tenant engagement, technological change – particular in relation to social media – has opened up new possibilities and avenues for communication and consultation. Housing organisations have been encouraged down the digital route in part by the need to deliver more efficiently in the face of post-2016 income constraints and in part by changing expectations from consumers about the nature of a quality service. But there have been genuine conversions – organisations that pursued the digital route defensively, out of perceived necessity, but which have come to be convinced of the benefits.
The arrival of the Covid pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new ways of working. Organisations have been forced to embrace remote working and online meeting and collaboration. Key committees and scrutiny panels have moved online. Landlords have discovered that online meeting can, under the right conditions, be no less effective, while being more accessible and inclusive.
The question we face now is how many of these changes in organisational practice are emergency measures restricted to the pandemic period and how many of them with remain as part of hybrid forms of working come to be seen as the “new normal” in the post-pandemic world (when we get there).
This is an area of continuing policy development and fertile ground for innovation. Many social housing organisations are no doubt pausing to reflect on how they have engaged with their tenants in the past and how they might do things differently in future.
Drawing on what has been said about the recent experiences of case study housing organisations, I want to make six points.
Communication is key to sustaining relationships. That’s true in life in general, and it’s very much the case in relation to tenant engagement. Tenants need to know what is going on.
“Completing the loop” is a recurrent theme. That is, if your organisation elicits views from tenants and tenants put in time and effort to share their thinking then it is important to feed back what the organisation did as a consequence of tenants’ input. That could be responding to tenants as a whole but it could also be tailored and targeted feedback to individual tenants who offered ideas that were taken up. Asking tenants for their input and then not explaining what difference that input has made is a quick route to disenchantment.
Communication includes explaining why things aren’t going to happen when expected or why plans have been changed. Importantly, in the context of engagement processes, it includes explaining why the organisation is not going to be able to take up ideas offered or requests made by tenants. The organisation might have very good reasons why certain suggestions cannot be taken up – or cannot be acted upon at this time – but if something of this reasoning isn’t shared with tenants then it can appear that the landlord simply isn’t listening.
A “mature and open relationship”
We are in a period of significant innovation, both organisational – new roles, new processes, new forums for input – and technological – new media for communication. All innovation potentially has costs and benefits. And all innovation occurs in the context of pre-existing relationships. Innovations involving technology are driven by data and can raise concerns, including about privacy and surveillance. Whether those concerns manifest themselves when changes in methods of engagement are proposed will depend on the state of the relationship between landlord and tenants. Is this a relationship of trust or suspicion? Will the move to substitute neighbourhood meetings in a draughty church hall for online dialogue through Facebook or a more specialist platform be interpreted as a positive move to get more people involved in the conversation or as yet another sign that the landlord is faceless and keen to keep tenants at arms’ length? That will depend on the recent history of those relationships. In some cases, it can be hard to step out of the shadow of their ancient history.
Service delivery can in practice rely upon a network of independent organisations in a variety of collaborative or subcontracting relationships. But from the tenants’ perspective this is irrelevant. Indeed, it may be entirely opaque. As far as tenants are concerned they are paying rent for a service from their landlord and it is their landlord that they see as responsible. So it is important that the landlord takes ownership of the entire supply chain and sees itself as ultimately responsible for end-to-end service quality. This is neither the time nor the place to pass the buck.
We need to get away from any assumption that “tenants” have a standardised experience of their relationship with their landlord. If we dig into the data on satisfaction and get beyond the headline figures, for example, does it lead to a more nuanced story about differences in experience between social groups?
When we are seeking to recruit tenants to participate in engagement activities then we need to go to where the tenants are, either physically or virtually, and use diverse methods to reach out. This is essential if we are hoping to get beyond the “usual suspects” of engagement processes.
And when we are engaging tenants we need to recognise that they will want to participate to different extents with different rhythms using different means. The idea that in the post-pandemic world we have moved decisively to digital should be treated cautiously. Digital communication is preferred by many, but not by all. And it carries its own risks of excluding people on the basis of lack of skills, lack of access to relevant technologies, or prohibitive cost.
We must therefore be willing to sustain a range of channels of communication. We should also resist easy assumptions about which groups will hold which preferences – it is not, for example, inevitable that older people will be the ones struggling most with or rejecting digital technologies.
Finally, we need processes that, when necessary, can synthesize these diverse contributions into a more comprehensive picture of tenants’ perspectives.
In the light of current policy imperatives many organisations are mindful of the role of tenants in their governance structures. Going beyond consumerism, is the tenants’ voice being heard in strategic decision-making? One shorthand for this is to think in terms of “tenants on the board”. But it is better to think about governance structures holistically. Does putting tenants on the board ensure that tenants’ interests are appropriately represented and asserted? Constitutionally that is a more complicated question than it first appears, given that board members are not representatives. How much of the Board’s business is something that current tenants should be engaging closely with? Getting many board members to engage with rather dry (but vital) topics like treasury management is not easy, whether or not they are tenants. Is a more focused forum such as a housing services committee or a resident scrutiny panel – which is tenant-led and genuinely empowered – a better way forward? Such committees can do important work and demonstrate that the organisation is responsive to tenant concerns, but it needs to be clear how it plugs into the overall governance structure, with an open channel to the board and sponsorship at senior level.
Equally, it is, of course, not necessarily one or the other: structures in which tenant board members bring with them knowledge garnered from chairing service-focussed committees can effectively bridge between the two conversations.
While we need to recognise and explore diversity we must be mindful of the risk of fragmentation. Talking about recognising responsibility for the whole supply change and end-to-end quality is to think about redrawing boundaries so that the performance of partners and subcontractors is something that is legitimately within the scope of our interest and not lying somewhere else. When we talk about communication and the importance of completing the loop we are recognising interconnection. When we talk about understanding governance structures as a whole we are focusing not just on the individual elements but also on their relationships.
These are all invitations to think more systemically. At the heart of systems thinking are boundaries, elements and relationships. Thinking systemically can help us understand better how elements interact to produce system level effects. Or it can highlight missing relationships in a way that points to the need for organisational change – implementing more effective feedback loops as a regulatory mechanism is a classic example.
One concept that emerges from the systems thinking literature is that of the “learning organisation”.
One concrete example of this is the way in which complaints are handled. Complaints can be addressed on an individual basis. But a learning organisation will be looking for patterns – are there particular services or geographical areas where complaints are more frequent? These can be the trigger for further investigation. Is it embedded in complaint handling to ask whether there are reasons for thinking this is a one-off situation or an indicator of a more general or systemic problem? Either way, what lessons can we learn from it?
This is an area in which we not only need to know what is going on, and know how we are going to act in response, but are also able to demonstrate how we have acted and give an account of our actions. It is an area in which there are external as well as internal communication channels to attend to.
In the face of diversity, technological change, and an evolving context there are few easy prescriptions about “what works”. So not just local innovation but also experimentation is required. Alongside experimentation is the need for rapid evaluation and feedback mechanisms so that the organisation can change course quickly – terminating unsuccessful experiments and investing further in more promising avenues. Trying things out is desirable, but being able to appraise success rapidly ensures that time, energy and resources are not unduly wasted.
Learning shouldn’t be a specialist or marginal function. It should be integral to the way in which an organisation operates. Hard and soft intelligence about service delivery and changing contexts is routinely being collected and collated not simply for its own sake, or because it is a regulatory requirement, but as the basis for evaluating current performance and assisting decisions about what needs to be different.
Reflexive and responsive governance systems are not difficult to envisage, but they are more challenging to implement – they raise a range of questions about, for example, the timeliness of data collection and processing, reporting structures, and the culture of the organisation. None the less, when the operating context is perceived to be more complex and uncertain the need for such systems becomes ever more apparent.
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