I have recently been thinking about the majority of housing systems being used by housing providers. It seems to me that almost all of the systems we use were designed and built in the last century. Although it’s true that these systems have been developed, extended and modified continually over their lifecycles, we should not be fooled by their browser-based front-ends into thinking they are modern systems. What’s more, the systems currently being sold as replacements are generally also systems originally developed in the 20th century.
So I have been wondering if we had a blank sheet of paper and were designing a new housing system from scratch for the 21st century, what would it look like and in what ways would it be different to what we have now?
In the cloud
I believe that cloud technology has the potential to reduce costs of ownership and increase resilience. A 21st century housing system would be hosted in a cloud environment. This would make it much easier for tenants to access self-service features and much easier for staff to work from home.
The 21st century system would be device and operating system independent. It would run on any client platform such as iOS, Windows or Android. This is more than just having a forms-generating system that can use the same forms design to generate client software to run on different platforms. It is about having a solution that can detect what platform is being used and automatically adjust its layout and features to take full advantage of the platform such as touch screens or GPS.
Digital by default
Internet access in the past has been seen as the third access method; we have always talked about tenants contacting us either face-to-face, via the phone or via the internet. I believe that Universal Credit means we need to fully embrace the concept of digital by default. The internet should be the first and main way that tenants contact us. It should be easier and quicker to interact with us via the web than over the phone. This may mean relinquishing some of the control that we had before and it may mean being a little less risk averse when it comes to issues like security. But I believe that digital by default is what we should be aiming for in the 21st century.
No duplication of data or functionality
Wherever possible, the 21st century system should hold data about tenants, properties, cases and jobs in one central repository. Also where different systems or modules create, amend or delete the same common entities, it should be possible to allocate one module or system as the ‘master’ system and prevent other systems from creating, amending or deleting those entities where this would cause prevent business processes from working correctly. This is very much a 20th century idea and most suppliers sell what they refer to as an integrated system. But because these suppliers want to be able to sell modules either together or separately, we often find that functionality is duplicated across systems or modules and that it is not possible to switch off or restrict this functionality in the ways we would like.
Most housing systems on the market still require the system to be closed down at night to allow overnight batch processes to be run. If we want to allow tenants to access the system via the internet, it is no longer acceptable for those systems to be closed down for four or five hours every night. A system fit for the 21st century should be capable of running 24/7 and should not require support from data centre operators outside normal working hours.
New mobile solutions should not be developed using client applications that are effectively forms installed on the mobile device. Instead they should be developed using rich internet applications such as Drupal. This would reduce costs and improve security by removing the need to store data on the mobile device. It’s true that some parts of the country still don’t have complete wireless coverage but if we are designing a system for the future, we shouldn’t limit our thinking because of current infrastructure problems.
The above are just my own ideas about how a system that was developed from scratch in the 21st century might differ from the legacy systems that most of us use. I am sure that most readers will have their own ideas and there is almost certainly no such thing as a perfect blueprint for the future.
But I hope that these few ideas have given you something to consider (even if the conclusion you come to is that I should probably start living in the real world) and start thinking about how we can all put pressure on our suppliers to develop their current systems to include some of the features listed above.
Chris Deery is head of ICT at Solihull Community Housing.