The range of responsibilities of social housing providers for handling and managing neighbourhood issues has broadened considerably in recent years. In particular, the focus on anti-social behaviour highlights how the relationship between landlord and tenant is changing; there is an ongoing pressure to remove barriers between departments and to provide ‘joined up’ services. Service providers must begin to see things from the customer’s point of view, and to tailor and target services accordingly.
Of course, this is old news in local government. The e-Government National Projects and Transformational Government agenda has provided an impetus and funding for local authorities to rethink not only how they interact with the public but also to transform their procedures and policies. While efficiency is undoubtedly a high priority, it is broadly accepted that services must be integrated and citizen-centric.
With the continual consolidation in the RSL sector, we are now seeing ever-larger housing groups which are facing the same challenges as their local authority counterparts. While growth has the advantage of delivering economies of scale, it has the disadvantage of making it harder to maintain a joined-up and personalised approach. There is a risk that as departments grow and the scope of services broadens, internal communications suffer and the organisation becomes more disjointed.
The proliferation of IT systems exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly difficult for IT managers to stem the tide of new systems that appear to provide quick solutions to new business needs. In a recent discussion about anti-social behaviour with the IT manager of a large RSL, he said to me, “The last thing I need is yet another standalone system, with more duplicated data, that is only understood by the people responsible for its procurement.”
A Housemark survey in 2007 found that 30 per cent of housing associations questioned were using specialist software to manage anti-social behaviour, whereas only 20 per cent were using their housing management system. This contrasts with councils and ALMOs, with 8.5 per cent using specialist software and 37 per cent using housing management systems. While the pressure on local authorities not to procure new systems might explain the disparity, RSLs may have gone with specialists because, as the Respect Toolkit for Landlords says, “…[housing] systems may not offer the same degree of flexibility and functionality as a stand-alone system”, and, “…specialist software may be more closely attuned to the needs of ASB practitioners. However, there can be disadvantages to a separate ASB database, unless it is linked into the landlord’s housing management system.”
And there is the problem. It’s one thing for a software provider to produce a system embodying business process and thereby providing the solution to a specific need, it’s quite another to integrate it into an existing technology architecture. The public sector IT landscape is littered with the corpses of failed systems integration projects, and the blame cannot be laid entirely at the door of over-enthusiastic salespeople.
We believe that the underlying problem is simply that when pressured to respond to new needs, public sector procurement teams often look for new systems that ‘tick the box’, and of course there will spring up any number of suppliers happy to oblige. Vendors of large IT systems can never turn out products as quickly as niche suppliers with smaller customer bases, but if anything ever needed an integrated approach, it’s anti-social behaviour. We are already beginning to see the bigger players respond with more flexible solutions as the way forward for housing providers must be to extend their core systems, not to introduce more silos within their data and systems.
Aidan Dunphy is arcHouse Plus product manager for Orchard Information Systems.