The increasing pressure to enhance efficiency by cutting costs, as well as deliver outstanding customer service, is an ongoing topic of conversation in housing authorities. However, the drive for efficiency and the Decent Homes standard can mean that it is easy to lose sight and control of the importance of customer service and care. Indeed, many housing authorities, including some of the biggest social housing stock-owning city councils, do not have the capital to even meet the basic Decent Homes standard, let alone realise the aspirations of both councils and tenants to create sustainable and quality places to live.
At the same time, the Tenant Services Authority is due to be launched in December 2008, with the aim of ensuring that the views of tenants are considered alongside the organisation’s financial viability. We are a firm believer in being able to deliver services and accommodation that will exceed both the TSA and Decent Homes requirements, while not losing sight of the needs of the tenants.
Our experience within social housing has shown that the implementation of online services to support tenants is often neglected. Online services can simplify the administration process and allow tenants to take greater control of requests, such as routine maintenance and repairs, and choice-based lettings. For example, allowing tenants to book an appointment online can make the tenants feel more empowered and better supported; they do not have to call the housing authority or visit a housing office, which saves time for the tenant, and cuts administration costs for the housing authority.
First, there needs to be a clear differentiation between basic online services that allow tenants to complete online request forms, which are then manually processed by a housing authority operative, and more advanced services that allow tenants to complete a request online, rather than simply initiate it. Second, it is important to realise that online services and electronic administration should never replace human contact; a balance needs to be found between providing an efficient service via online services while maintaining the human touch.
The aim of introducing such services is to simplify the administration process; tenants provide information via the internet which can then be transferred directly to a central database, rather than relying on in-house staff to input the information manually. Computers are more efficient and work more effectively than humans when it comes to simple administration procedures, so it is about redistributing human resources to deliver a better tenant service, rather than focusing on routine administrative tasks.
The benefits of taking tenant services online are clear. However, social housing organisations lag behind their counterparts in local authorities, and few social housing organisations have fully researched their tenants’ needs, resulting in the potential for under-used services and wasted investments. It is easy to highlight the potential benefits of online services, but ultimately the services must be tailored to tenant needs. These will vary from one housing authority to another – the only way to find out what tenants need most is to ask them.
Providing online services in isolation is not enough to offer an improved tenant experience; it must be part of a commitment to use technology to integrate different parts of the organisation. For example, Affinity Sutton has introduced a central customer contact centre and introduced electronic document management and workflow technology. Formed as the result of a series of mergers and acquisitions, Affinity Sutton was arguably a rather fragmented organization with lots of regional offices. The solution was centralise customer contact via a single call centre, as well as make it possible for operators to access all aspects of a tenant’s file. Removing the siloed approach to storing tenant data also enables one person to deal with any enquiry, saving time and reducing potential frustration. To enhance the tenant service experience further, the addition of online services can reduce the pressure on the contact centre and put the tenant in greater control.
The internet is almost ubiquitous, and for those tenants who are unable to access to internet at home or work, there are free access points at most public libraries. We don’t believe that online services should ever replace other forms of housing authority contact, but with pressure to achieve three-star ratings in a market still driven by mergers and acquisitions, introducing the technology after a proper tenant consultation period can drastically reduce administration costs, improve efficiency and deliver a better service.
Matt Fawcett is a system and integration analyst in Civica’s housing and asset management division.