Tenants want and usually expect to be able to self-serve at a time of their choosing; the time of weekday-only, office-hours services is over, and this has been accelerated through necessity by the pandemic.
Housing providers of all sizes have huge programmes to transform delivery; to use existing technologies to modernise the way they work, and to design and embed emerging technologies to make things smarter and more efficient.
This is obviously to be welcomed but are we doing enough to consider the needs of those who already potentially face exclusion and barriers in their lives, as essential services are digitised? ‘Digital by design’ is a concept that is now well recognised in our sector, but have we given enough thought to ‘inclusion by design’?
The digital divide and risk of exclusion of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities could be exacerbated by the digital acceleration unless this is explicitly factored into service design from the outset.
The issue of skills and confidence is widely recognised, particularly in relation to older people, and many housing providers offer training to help tenants get online and develop the skills they need to build technology into the way they bank, shop, keep in touch with friends and family, and access services and support.
But training itself may not be enough to build the confidence needed to change a lifetime of habits. Everyone learns differently so housing providers should be thinking about the outcomes they want, in terms of sustained changes of behaviour rather than focusing on a blanket roll-out of high-level skills.
When organisations recognise that they need more digitally-literate staff to support new ways of working and roll-out training purely via e-learning, it’s vaguely on a par with ‘we know you don’t speak French, but we’re going to deliver our training in French nonetheless…’
We can do better…
However, even while recognising these limitations, other risk factors that our tenants face from digitisation appear to be less consciously considered or built into the way we are designing and launching digital services at the moment.
For example, we know that people with lower incomes are more likely to be on monthly data plans and therefore might have reduced access to online information and services at certain points in the month. This lack of access could potentially result in a vulnerable applicant missing a property they are eligible for if the only way to access a choice-based lettings system is online during a specified window each week.
While one could argue that people can access laptops in public spaces if it’s important enough for them to do so, we could do more to reduce the impact of this by considering changes to advertising or allocations processes; perhaps flag where people may not be able to bid and automate an expression of interest for example? It’s not rocket science, but if we plan for the realities of each of these risk factors in the design of our business processes and systems, we can help to reduce any negative impact they might have.
Also, are we confident that our systems are consistently fully responsive and accessible via mobile phone (as opposed to via tablet, laptop or desktop) so that people aren’t discouraged from using services because the user experience is poor? Again, lower-income tenants are more likely to only have digital access via a mobile device, so if a system works less well on a smaller device, the impact it has for them is disproportionately greater.
Similarly, are translation tools built-in for all customer-facing processes to provide easy support for customers whose first language isn’t English? If so, how robust and accurate are they and are there appropriate escalation processes if something goes wrong or a situation becomes too complex to automate? The customer shouldn’t disengage because the service just stops or because they don’t know what to do next.
Where customers have physical disabilities, can they access support to help them engage with services appropriately or is there an expectation that they will do it via an advocate (which could be discriminating in its assumptions or have a range of unintended consequences)? Are accessibility tools considered in the way that services are delivered digitally, in order to support issues with mobility, vision, hearing, neurodiversity or even mental health?
Similarly, are assistive technologies understood and considered in the way that services are offered to people with learning disabilities? Does the business process design focus on the application of a standard experience for all customers, or can it be tailored to the individual (for example, to support independent living in a wider range of scenarios) to allow people to live more equally?
Across the sector, as new digital channels are introduced to contact centres, it’s important that all customers have the same quality of experience, regardless of their channel of access or personal situation.
Use of digital technology undoubtedly offers new ways to address some of the barriers to inclusion, but an investment in ‘inclusion by design’ needs to be embedded as part of the digitisation process from the outset.
Cher Lewney is a principal consultant at Altair.