Managing the project of implementing one housing management system to replace seven is challenging. Add working through a pandemic at the same time, and you have the ingredients for some very interesting days ahead…
You will all be familiar with this story. A service with dated systems built up over the years without any proper integration. Data quality issues and staff having to search for the truth over several systems proving to be time-consuming and not always accurate. The frustrations of reporting across disparate data silos while trying to fulfil statutory requirements and the constant need for quality information to inform senior management and help support strategic demands. That’s where we are at in the London Borough of Redbridge.
Given the absolute necessity to improve the technology that supports our housing service and the need to become digitally inclusive to serve our residents and to help staff in the field, we have embarked on a huge transformation of not only our IT infrastructure but the way we meet the needs of our residents. We thought we would detail our journey to date and some of the lessons learned in the hope we can help others with similar endeavours.
Our original project brief was to rationalise seven housing management systems to one and free up our staff’s capacity so they can spend less time searching for the truth across systems and more time engaging and supporting our residents.
So where do you start?
The housing IT market is a niche one, especially if you are a local authority. A small number of the same main suppliers have been around for a long time. These suppliers have sophisticated, functionally-rich systems and are very good at what they say on the tin, but not every council works in the same way. Depending on their demographic and what’s been retained in house, each council has slightly different requirements. It is these requirements where you need to focus your attention and where the importance of soft market testing comes in.
Soft market testing
In spring 2019, we assessed the market to come up with the top six providers of housing solutions who were then invited to demonstrate their systems to our senior management. This early market engagement enabled us to understand the market and it gave the suppliers the opportunity to understand our goals, capabilities and limitations.
It became apparent early on that while some suppliers had invested considerable time and effort into bringing their systems up-to-date with the latest technology, some were still offering older client/server technology or were in the middle of moving to cloud/SaaS-based products.
Although this early market engagement was helpful, it didn’t give the full picture. Housing systems are complex, wide-ranging systems serving a multitude of functions, and having each supplier in for a two-hour demo barely scratched the surface. Following feedback from staff, each supplier was invited back to demonstrate their system over two days. This allowed us to run targeted workshops on our key business areas.
The outcome of these workshops was that a ‘one system fits all’ approach would be challenging to achieve. This was a pivotal moment because it helped us shape our procurement approach.
Engaging the ‘been there and done that’
The next step was to contact other councils to find out what they were using, how and why they’d got there and any suggestions for what they would do differently; two main points came out of this exercise:
Implementations of this size and nature typically take a minimum of twelve months and realistically closer to 18, excluding the procurement process itself.
All councils we contacted were using at least two systems for their housing management needs.
Gathering the requirements
To save time, we created a hybrid list of requirements used by other councils to come up with our own base set. We then tailored this to our needs by running a series of workshops and meetings with staff across housing, IT, revenues and benefits, finance and customer services.
However, one of the challenges of putting together requirements for such a wide-ranging subject is that you invariably end up with a long list of requirements – in our case, over 1,200 requirements!
Many requirements can be problematic in trying to differentiate between suppliers in the evaluation phase of procurement. 1,200 requirements can be time-consuming for the suppliers to answer and for the evaluators to score, especially with six bids to score (7,200 answers to consider…). To avoid this, we bundled our requirements into ‘just’ 30 Quality Method statements.
Re-examining the benefits during the pandemic
The benefits of any project need to be regularly reviewed to ensure they still align with the needs of the business; this is particularly true in the current pandemic. Many of the original benefits listed below are even more critical today than they were pre-coronavirus.
- Enabling mobile working for the staff.
- Enabling greater functionality for self-service and improved accessibility for residents.
- Improving process automation to free up staff.
- Introducing a system which has the potential to grow with the changing demands of the housing service, ensuring an element of future-proofing.
Digital value chain
And with a shortfall of income for most councils, Redbridge will be looking at leveraging the latest technology trends to add to our digital value chain:
- Improved data and fewer systems will give us greater insights to manage our voids better;
- Controlling the increasing costs of temporary accommodation;
- Predictive analysis for rent arrears;
- Using smart buildings and IoT;
- Chatbots and RPA for low-level, high-volume tasks.
Hopefully this has given you some useful insight into Redbridge’s journey to date; we’re planning a follow-up article for when we reach the implementation stage to tell you how stressed we are/how well we’re getting on (delete as applicable)…
Karl King is a consultant project manager at the London Borough of Redbridge.