Many housing associations have welcomed the setting up of the Tenant Services Authority as it will be a more tenant-focused regulator. The new body is likely to take evaluation of tenant services from landlords to a new level.
However, the new agency’s scope to shine the light on the quality of housing operations could also be symptomatic of a wider shift to more sophisticated benchmarking of associations’ performance, particularly as housing providers seek advice or new funding partnerships to combat the effects of the current downturn.
As a result, while previous regulation focused on the Decent Housing standard and housing groups’ processes for delivering against it, the TSA will concentrate on outcomes for tenants. This will not only be in terms of housing accommodation and tenant support, but also service accessibility and the housing associations’ ability to work with local partners such as local Primary Care Trusts and community safety partnerships.
If the TSA intends to get tough with failing associations, it will require evidence-based reports of how required outcomes are being met. This will naturally include rental income, stock inspections and repair completions. However, to satisfy itself on outcome-based matters, the regulator will need more sophisticated evidence than simple tenant satisfaction surveys. Associations will therefore need to provide data on different aspects of tenant service delivery and their wider community outreach. And without a shift in thinking on reporting, that’s where the problems could start.
Take tenant safety. Associations will need to show that they are setting up partnerships with police forces and enforcing ‘zero tolerance’ of anti-social behaviour. Housing managers will need to demonstrate that they have the systems to monitor and prioritise their responses to such issues to external inspectors.
Of course regulation is nothing new in housing. Associations have survived and often prospered through Audit Commission and other inspections. However, the TSA’s requirements will add to these pressures. In the ‘quiet period’ before the regulator sets out its expectations, housing groups need to start asking themselves urgent questions. Do they know who their tenants are? Do they have the resources to extract better intelligence from their management systems? Can they produce the different data sets that Audit Commission and TSA inspectors will require?
These operational challenges are becoming more acute given the economic downturn and the hangover from recent mergers of housing groups. It may take many months to consolidate different business systems and ICT platforms. There may not be the funds available for any further ICT investments.
In these challenging conditions, what practical steps can hard-pressed managers take to benchmark their services? How can they provide the new data sets demanded by the inspectors without draining staff resources away from critical daily operations?
Three steps should be taken. First, senior managers need to start thinking of new approaches. They should carry out capability assessments of their resources, including the staff and housing management systems needed to deliver new types of performance information requests. In time, they will also have to work out ways of understanding and setting new KPIs in their daily operations.
Second, housing managers need to sit down with their housing management system provider(s) or the National Housing Federation and Chartered Institute of Housing, to understand better how to get greater insight from their data. Not only will housing groups have to ask different questions of their own management systems and collect more sophisticated metrics, they will also need to streamline the whole process of aggregating and analysing that data.
These experts can advise on best practice. They can also provide pointers towards getting more from existing system data; The data is already there and can be harnessed if the ways to interrogate it are reconfigured and enhanced.
Third, with the support of senior management, housing managers need to develop a critical plan or at least a practical framework of steps to improve their reporting capabilities and understand their tenant services better ahead of the inevitable TSA and Audit Commission requests.
As the credit crunch continues to bite, housing groups must understand their emerging liabilities or examine how to refinance themselves. Housing and finance managers alike are facing increasing pressures on their financial reporting: how to show reporting clarity, demonstrate sound finances, deliver arrears projections and assess other risks, so that their association does not breach banking covenants or previous agreements with developers.
On a brighter note, observers are watching to see if the Homes and Communities Agency gets the funding to establish new large public-private partnerships. These could ‘kick start’ housebuilding, bringing together developers, associations and partners. As a result, many housing associations may also need to demonstrate their fitness to become such a partner. The clock is ticking on the questions of performance and service.
John Hood is the managing director of Civica’s social housing division.