As the Social Housing Regulation Act 2023 becomes law, the way housing providers understand, communicate with and listen to tenants is under the spotlight. Six years after the Grenfell tragedy and three years after the Social Housing Whitepaper, housing providers must demonstrate to the regulator that tenants’ voices are heard and acted on.
What can housing providers do to ensure they fully understand their customers’ needs, are treating them fairly and with respect, and are maximising every opportunity to engage with them to improve the quality of their services?
A key requirement in the proposed new consumer standards is that housing providers act to ensure that all tenants can access their services fairly and equally.
The importance of data
Collecting as much good quality and accurate information about customers will underpin this. It will help inform what information and messages are relevant to them and which channels are more likely to be effective.
In the past, housing providers tended to be smaller and it was easier for housing officers to walk around an estate and speak to people about any worries they had or if they needed support. To pop in for a chat and a cup of tea with an elderly resident, for example, and because they could do this, they knew at first-hand that the resident walked with the aid of a Zimmer frame or lived alone and so there was less need to record this in a database (a notebook would do). But as housing providers have merged and become larger, it’s become very difficult to get to know tenants’ individual circumstances and maintain those personal connections.
Understanding who the customers are, including everyone in the household and not just the lead tenant, will be even more essential under the new legislation. For example, knowing what their first language is, if they have disabilities or health concerns, will help housing providers make sure their customers have access to the right housing services, as well as keeping their communications appropriate, relevant and inclusive.
A single view
If information about both the tenant and the property can be viewed together within one housing management system then you can use that to understand and segment the customer base better to make sure communication is focused and personal; for example, sending information on how to access care services to a young couple would be inappropriate and risks them disengaging.
The regulator wants housing providers to work with their tenants to collect the information they need and clearly explain how it will be used to improve their homes and services. This is why it’s vital to have a data strategy, setting out where the data will be held, why it’s being captured and who will have access to it.
Tenants want to know their data is held securely and that the information will be used to treat them fairly and equally. Protocols should be agreed as part of the overall data strategy to ensure the right people have access to the right data, at the right time. This will not only help to target resources to improve support for residents but will also avoid erroneous information inadvertently being used to disadvantage a tenant.
From April next year, housing providers will need to demonstrate that they take tenants’ views into account when they make key decisions about their services.
The new consumer regulations are all about communicating with customers in the right way so it’s about recognising when and for whom digital works too.
Although most will be happy to use digital channels and welcome 24/7 access to services, there will always be some tenants who don’t or who can’t engage in that way and housing providers need to know when the focus should be on offering an alternative, such as a phone call or face-to-face visit.
But it’s not just about talking to residents, it’s also about giving them a voice and listening to it. Tenants need to see that what they say really does matter, is acted on and can make a difference.
Discussion forums, polls and surveys are all ways to actively seek out and collaborate with tenants so their input can be considered when shaping services.
We’ve co-designed and are implementing with two housing providers an app that goes beyond just enabling tenants to log repairs and manage their rent accounts. Through their housing app, residents can talk to one another or create different groups to share, say, tips on coping with rising heating bills.
The app can also dynamically signpost customers to support. For example, if their rent balance is rising and they’re regularly checking their statement, they can be directed to help and advice. And their housing provider can communicate with them via the app using polls and surveys to get a temperature check and find out what matters to tenants and act. This helps to create more of a partnership approach and sense of community.
Once residents have submitted their thoughts, it’s critical to act on them. Capturing customer feedback is one thing, but tenants need to know they are being listened to and concerns or requests for support aren’t ignored. Capturing and managing actions and tasks and ensuring they’re addressed through to completion demonstrates to tenants their voice matters. It’s more straightforward to manage the process within one platform because it provides a holistic picture and is easier to manage and keep secure.
Transparency & accountability
Under the Social Housing Regulation Act, there is a renewed emphasis on reporting and complaint handling. People need to know and understand how to get hold of key information to show their homes are being managed safely and efficiently. And what they can do about it if they aren’t happy or feel they are being treated unfairly.
It’s essential to have an effective complaints mechanism to record what action the housing provider has taken to handle the complaint promptly so customers will know they are being listened to. It will help housing providers show how customers are kept informed of what’s being done to put things right, or how expectations are being managed if the complaint can’t be resolved quickly.
To gauge how housing providers are meeting these requirements, they need to be recording tenants’ satisfaction levels. Using tenant perception surveys and monitoring key performance measures, providers must track and report on satisfaction rates. It can be hard to manage this process and pull information together into one report if the data sits within disparate systems.
Keeping tenants at the heart
The new consumer regulations are proposing to strengthen the standards expected of housing providers. It must be made easier for tenants to report repairs and to be kept updated about progress, to access support and to find out how well their provider is delivering their housing services.
The reforms are the most significant to take place in social housing for decades and housing providers will need to continue to build their understanding of residents to make sure they are talking, listening and engaging in the most appropriate and relevant ways to get the best out of those relationships.
Kay Aston is head of product at NEC Housing.