When used well, data provides a single version of the truth regarding an organisation and its customers. Following the death of Awaab Ishak who died in 2020 aged two in a home his parents rented from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), questions have been asked about the data housing providers hold on their tenants and whether they are using it effectively.
RBH’s director of customers and communities, Nadhia Khan, spoke at the Housing Technology 2023 conference in March alongside Socitm Advisory’s client services director, Tim Cowland. They talked about the lessons they’ve learnt from the incident and the factors surrounding how the dangerous levels of mould in Awaab’s home were overlooked, with data management being one of them.
What is the background of the case involving the death of Awaab Ishak?
Nadhia Khan: Awaab Ishak, a two-year-old boy who lived in one of our flats in Rochdale died as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in his home. The mould had originally been reported to RBH in 2017. The next time we were aware of the problem was in June 2020 when a legal disrepair claim was submitted on behalf of the family by their solicitors. Whilst an inspection of the home was carried out, the works were not completed because the disrepair process at the time meant that we did not carry out works without the approval of the tenants’ solicitors. Information submitted to us by a midwife about the condition of the home was not shared widely on our systems which meant the teams working with the family were not aware of the medical concerns expressed.
The coroner’s report stated that there was also a lack of information sharing between other key agencies such as health visitors, midwives, early-help services and the GP.
Everyone at RBH is driven by a desire to provide safe and comfortable homes we are proud of. Yet, mistakes were made. We failed Awaab, his family and the community we serve and we will forever remain sorry to his family.
What were the key lessons RBH learned from this case?
NK: Significant improvements have been made following the death of Awaab. We recognise that as a result of having a number of systems that were used by different teams, we did not have a single view of the customer. We have a CRM system that was not being used consistently across the whole organisation so we have now rolled out mandatory training for all our staff alongside clear procedures regarding when and how information should be recorded. We are also engaging with partners who work in the borough to ensure that relevant information about customers is shared when this is needed.
We are committed to improving the quality of the homes we manage and over the course of the next twelve months we are carrying out a stock-condition survey of all our homes so that we have accurate data about the homes we manage. An important aspect of this work currently is dealing with reports of damp and mould. Every time we now visit a customer, whether to carry out a repair or to discuss tenancy management issues, we are doing visual inspections to check on the condition of the home. This information is inputted into our systems so that we can build up a more accurate picture of the condition of our homes.
We are also seeking to capture more information about customers so that we can provide more responsive services; for example, understanding the profile of the household and whether there are any vulnerabilities we need to be aware of. This information about people and property will help us to better focus our services so that customers receive a much better service from us.
What are RBH’s future challenges?
Our challenge is to ensure that our customers receive the very best services and that the homes we provide are of a high quality. We have published a recovery plan that sets out all the work we are doing to make sure we achieve these aims. The plan is focused on improving the quality of our homes and ensuring we listen to and involve our tenants. More information is publicly available from our website (rbh.org.uk/news/rbh-news/our-recovery-plan).
Turning to Socitm Advisory’s Tim Cowland, what are biggest challenges for housing providers?
Tim Cowland: I talk to many housing providers from all over the UK every day, and the picture is remarkably similar wherever we go.
There are the external pressures that housing providers’ boards and executive teams are having to contend with. Cost-of-living concerns for tenants mean they will be having difficulties paying their bills and making difficult choices around their day-to-day living which may affect their standard of living and health. The national economic picture is also affecting housing providers’ operating costs, including rises in the cost of materials, contractors and staffing. Difficult decisions are having to be made around how these cost increases can be absorbed while trying to maintain the essential support required by customers who have challenges of their own.
Of course, the wider landscape also includes regulatory changes for English housing providers. This is placing a sharper focus on the way in which providers can respond to more in-depth scrutiny and greater customer engagement. The housing teams we speak to are worried about whether they have the necessary processes and data management principles to do this effectively.
Many of my discussions are also with digital leaders, who have their own challenges in supporting organisations to deal with this national landscape. Staffing has been a big problem, with many organisations struggling to attract and retain staff with good levels of digital skills.
However, the most common topic of conversation is around data management. Management teams convey a message of being ‘data rich and insight poor’; they know they have a mass of data swimming around the organisation but can’t harness the power of that data effectively. It’s still a common picture for a housing provider to have numerous data-sets dispersed across a wide range of systems, with no clear understanding of accuracy, duplication and gaps.
Most management teams want to deal with this and reach a position where they’re confident about the data they hold and that it’s being used to make informed decisions. They’re striving for a model of joined-up, consistent data across their systems.
What’s your advice to housing providers currently reviewing their overall data management strategies?
TC: As mentioned earlier, data management is very high on the list of challenges for most housing providers at the moment. First of all, gain a clear understanding of the position you’re in and the problem you have right at the beginning. It’s very difficult to decide what you need to do if you’re unclear about your starting point.
When we complete data maturity assessments with our customers, we build an overall picture of their data environment, including assessing leadership and strategy, data governance, data skills and data security. This then helps them to understand their focus areas and the actions needed to improve. Many teams we talk to admit to holding ‘off line’ extracts of data taken from systems in spreadsheets and duplicated data in different applications; this obviously poses a risk in terms of customer service, efficiency and GDPR compliance.
Most teams understand that having a perfect data environment doesn’t happen overnight, particularly if you are starting at a very low level of maturity. Building a roadmap or improvement plan helps focus on the priority areas to bring quick wins and address the most pressing risks. This creates a solid foundation for more creative and innovative service design to be done in the future.
One of the most important early actions we recommend is to gain senior leadership commitment to building an effective data model. The days of the IT team being the sole owners of data are now long gone, and it’s the responsibility of the entire business to own and maintain good data practices. Cultures need to change in order to realise the importance of data and embed it at the heart of everything we do.
Similarly, data needs to work across the whole organisation. As Nadhia highlighted earlier, datasets used in isolation within pockets of the business leads to siloed decision-making and presents real risks. Housing providers should strive for joined-up data across their services so that the full picture can be considered when making both day-to-day and wider strategic decisions.
Finally, I would suggest getting some help before you start your journey. Specialists in the field of data management, such as Socitm Advisory, can help you on the right path and give you clear direction to help you achieve your goals.
Every decision and every outcome can be linked back to the organisation’s mission and values, and performance can be measured accurately. Data acts as a compass to help individuals, teams and leaders know they are heading in the same direction.
Nadhia Khan is the director of customers and communities at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH). Tim Cowland is the client services director at Socitm Advisory.