Inflation may be falling but people are still feeling the pinch. First the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis have put pressure on family finances and led to increased rent arrears. For Southwark Council, London’s biggest landlord, late or non-payments are a big concern, not to mention a worry for our tenants. Thankfully, the transformation process we launched in 2017 has put us in a good place to offer the right support and weather the storm.
Solving the ‘patches’ problem
Our income officers traditionally work in specific geographic areas or ‘patches’, often managing hundreds of cases. It can be hard to spot the highest priorities, either in terms of tenants’ need or arrears level. This leads to wasted effort and may even delay the support that’s needed to keep someone in their home.
When I joined Southwark Council in 2017, I instigated a review of our income collection processes. Working with my team, we found staff having to use manual processes to try and prioritise cases. We saw arrears cases being managed inconsistently, and we realised we couldn’t transfer resources from one patch to another because the data was hard to share.
It was clear we needed a better match between the action we were taking and the support each tenant required.
Moving to ‘prevent, resolve & recover’
Our strategy was to develop new ways of working that would lead to cases being managed in three distinct workstream – prevent, resolve and recover (PRR) – and to get clear sight of the priorities in each one. So we invested in new digital tools to enable us to move into ‘patchless’ case management and restructured the team to drive it forward.
In September 2023, we were ready to restructure our staff to work in PRR workstreams and by November 2023, just two months after completing the final stage of this transformation, we were delivering great results. We completed 42 per cent more home visits, increased the number of payment arrangements by 22 per cent and collected 33 per cent more cash.
Investing in the right tools for the change
To help us allocate arrears cases effectively, we first went live with RentSense in 2018. This initially supported our transition to a patchless collection model but we soon began developing our own analysis parameters to give us the level of detail we needed to further innovate into the PRR model of collection and income maximisation.
So in 2021, we switched to NEC Account Analytics. We now have access to more granular data and analysis; for example, we could choose to prioritise cases based on their payment percentage over the past three months. We can also make instant amendments to the parameters governing the workstreams, enabling us to respond to changing circumstances quickly.
We’ve also invested in a range of automation tools, such as enabling tenants to set up direct debits online, using Power BI to track performance, and using data in NEC Account Analytics to drive omni-channel automated collection campaigns.
Supporting tenants and staff more effectively
Now, our tenants get fast, consistent responses. They might be newly in debt or waiting for a court date, but they’ll receive a response within 24 hours, no matter who takes the call. Our income officers also benefit; they have access to prioritised case lists based on accurate data and enjoy supporting the workstream that best matches their skills.
Engaging our staff in the transformation process has been essential to success. Since 2017, we’ve been exploring the challenges they face around data and workloads and working with them to develop solutions, bringing them with us as things change. They can see the benefit for tenants too; one customer emailed to say that the short conversation they’d had with an income officer really lifted their spirits during a worrying time.
Feeling ready for the future
In recent years, tenants’ incomes haven’t kept up with inflation and rent increases, resulting in an increase in universal credit take-up to assist rent payments. Intervening earlier and faster is vital to diverting tenants from crises and sustaining their tenancies, therefore avoiding the cost of court action.
This is what our PRR workstream model enables us to do – backed up by accurate data, we can triage accounts based on payment history, allocating them into the correct workstream for income officers to provide the necessary support or to take prompt legal action.
We don’t expect the difficulties around income collection to diminish any time soon and workloads will remain high, but we now have the right structure, data and system flexibility to support our tenants and our income collection as best we can.
Leo Stanislaus is the operations manager for income at Southwark Council.