When it comes to digital transformation, the term ‘fixing the plumbing’ gets used a lot to reinforce the need for housing providers to improve their systems. What it doesn’t capture, however, is the need to go further to effect change today in the housing sector.
Fixing the plumbing is a lengthy and complex task. While that continues, there’s some structural work that needs to be fixed now too. We need to expand our focus from fixing the plumbing to creating sustainable change through an improved digital culture, with services to match.
The local digital declaration was introduced over a year ago. It sets out clear ambitions for how local government needs to improve services to meet the needs of today’s residents.
At first glance, it might seem that not a huge amount has changed since then. We can, however, see that the intent is there, with over 200 signatories. The Government Digital Service had spending controls to direct digital service transformation in central government; there are no equivalent levers to make councils act on their intent, with challenges in the housing sector hard to quantify and real change difficult to spot.
That’s where incentives such as the local digital fund come in. Announced in July 2018, the fund helps local authorities put their plans into motion, from making residents’ lives easier with more efficient online services for making payments or reporting repairs, to adopting technology to support vulnerable people. The aim is to make a reality of the ideas set out in the declaration by offering funding for transformation projects and digital skills training. So far, only a small number of projects have received funding. But there’s been an enormous positive impact for those that have.
For example, Greenwich, Southwark, Lincoln and South Kesteven councils are working together on an ‘alpha’ project exploring approaches for the design of a common pattern for the reporting, diagnosing and scheduling of housing repairs.
While the intent is there and we are seeing good progress in some areas, the declaration on its own is limited beyond starting to build a like-minded community. Councils are vast and complex organisations. It is usual to see small pockets of change but less so to see a culture of sustained action based on openness and true collaboration.
Get leadership buy-in
Signalling intent and engaging with the funding are a key part of transforming local housing services, and that starts at the top. General attitudes towards digital transformation have changed for the better over the past year. But what happens if the leadership team isn’t convinced?
And even with leadership buy-in, understanding of transformation can sometimes fall short. This leads to the vulnerability of housing projects. A new breed of leader is needed; leaders with intent, and the understanding and willingness to reimagine how their local area can work.
Leaders in councils need not only to embrace the idea of transforming housing services, they must also familiarise themselves with digital ways of working and the changes they require from traditional structures and ways of managing work. They need to ‘get digital’ and make sure that knowledge is spread across the organisation.
Finance & housing transformation together
Another challenge which has become more overwhelming is budget. Finding ways to save money on housing services and provision often has to be a priority. The temptation to buy into cheaper solutions can be, in the short-term, financially beneficial, but it won’t lead to successful long-term benefits for the local area or its residents.
It’s easier to make the case for larger organisations to put up bigger amounts of money in the early stages of a project. But for cash-strapped local councils, it’s often a difficult argument to win. We don’t know what people’s needs and priorities will be in the future, so any new systems need to be able to easily adapt to these changing needs. This requires a bolder approach to budgets and decision making.
For service suppliers, there’s plenty we can do, and it begins with changing our perceptions. ‘Lack of understanding’ within councils is not synonymous with ‘unwilling to try’. We know from the local digital declaration that the willingness to transform services such as housing is there. A lack of resources and knowledge about digital ways of working are often the real barriers. We need to work with the knowledge and resources councils have, and to trust their team to commit. They, in turn, need to trust us to commit.
Build the right team
All local authorities face similar issues, such as housing provision, services to those in social housing and access to support. The idea of collaborating to tackle these should be pretty obvious at first glance, but working collaboratively with other councils is hard and there’s little evidence that this approach has brought real benefits so far. This was a clear finding from our work with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to learn more about how councils can work together to affect change. There’s even some evidence that collaboration can slow the process down.
However, collaboration can be really successful when one organisation can use the assets or resources that another one has already produced, such as user research or software code. This way they can keep a small focused team working on a discrete problem, but benefit from the groundwork done elsewhere. We’re starting to see some examples of councils working together on code sharing and developing approaches to common issues. This requires clear focus and a high level of trust.
Ambitions for the housing sector
Councils can, and should, set higher housing ambitions. Focusing solely on ‘fixing the plumbing’ risks ignoring the systemic and cultural transformation that needs to happen to respond to a changing local environment and residents’ needs. With leadership commitment, talented digital teams and bravery in adapting new funding models, real transformation can happen.
Alex Yedigaroff is the transformation manager at DXW Digital.