The government has set out its ambition to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25 per cent this year and a further 25 per cent each year for the following two years. In addition, it is aiming for 80 per cent of universal credit applications to be made online by 2017. The drive to get more people online and using digital public services was a key topic of discussion at the recent Civica Expo, with a series of panel discussions on the need to deliver a new and personalised experience for tenants, improve efficiencies and enhance the quality of services to meet the demands of the digital age.
The general conclusion was that the move towards a ‘digital first’ culture in housing is beginning to see progress, as the technology to do so is there; but implementation and adoption rates still vary dramatically between different housing providers.
While many housing providers now have online rent portals, usage is low and they are often seen as an information site rather than anything else. During a panel discussion on the future of technology in housing, it was noted that a large number of tenants still visited their housing provider’s offices for face-to-face communication, and with online tenant portals having usage rates as low as 5 per cent.
Meanwhile, many front-end housing websites are moving to a self-service model where tenants can access their rent statements, report the need for repairs and log other issues. However, in some cases, the back office has yet to fully integrate with the front end so there is still a manual element meaning that the impact on business efficiency is not yet being felt.
Advances in technology and automation, the proliferation of devices and communication channels, and the greater availability of data for a 24/7 on-demand public is changing everything for all of us.
It’s clear there is still work to be done to ensure that digital services are being used to their full potential and to get communities up to speed with the benefits that digital services provide. Some housing providers have even said that they aim to eradicate letters altogether within the next three years, which certainly sounds ambitious. But what are the steps that housing providers need to take to embrace the digital revolution?
Understand your community
Housing providers are having to cater to an increasingly diverse audience, from the digitally-native Generation Z (born 1995-2012) who will soon start becoming Tenant Z, to the UK’s growing elderly population, some of whom have never accessed the internet before. First and foremost, housing providers must understand what generational and digital mix their community comprises so they can tailor services appropriately.
Once the needs of the community have been established, then housing providers can set about closing the gaps, either by developing and launching new services tailored to suit specific demographical needs, such as a telephone translation service for tenants who don’t speak English or working towards digital inclusion. As digital services are considerably more efficient and cost-effective to run, it’s usually preferable for organisations to find ways of removing barriers to internet use among the digitally illiterate and develop online services that are safe and easy to use. One housing provider at the Civica Expo explained how it had conducted a digital inclusion survey in its local area to find out how many people were using digital services and what the appetite was like in the area for online training. Training was then provided to people in their community who showed a desire to learn how to use the internet and digital services. Findings from their digital inclusion survey also showed that more people were using smartphones and tablets to access digital services, rather than laptops and PCs. This led the organisation to adapt their training methods to reflect this trend.
Effective marketing and communication
While having the right technology is crucial, effective marketing and communication to let your community know you’ve invested in new digital channels or services is important if they are actually going to be used. Last autumn, Sentinel Housing launched its UK online centre with an event, social media and blog activity. Meanwhile Hounslow Council recently launched a new ‘find my nearest’ online tool to help people locate their nearest schools, libraries, leisure centres and police stations. They raised awareness of the service with PR, banners on their homepage and within their e-newsletter. Without this kind of supporting activity, housing providers will inevitably find that they have invested considerable money in cutting-edge technology but the uptake of services will be low.
For any effective change to take hold, it requires leaders to drive change forward and win the hearts and minds of staff. Our ‘Invigorating the Public Sector Revolution’ report looks at organisational leaders and how they can empower the wider workforce to create a structure that drives transformation.
Back-office technology to manage front-line services
Front-line staff should be encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the community, listening to people’s concerns and encouraging them to use digital services. Mobile and back-office technology is increasingly helping front-line staff manage their caseloads on the go, while staying connected and keeping up with developments in the office, particularly those which offer integrated CRM and communication capabilities and can flex to capitalise rapidly on new technology.
With the cost of digital decreasing for both consumers and organisations, and user demand for instant and efficient services and continued cost-savings by central government increasing, the case for embracing and encouraging digital services in the housing sector is increasingly robust. Now is the time to invest or else risk being left behind.
Jeff Hewitt is executive director for housing and asset management at Civica.