The July edition of Housing Technology carried several articles exploring how large data sets are creating new opportunities based on the capacity to mine that information. Several important points emerged. First, the social housing sector is facing major challenges as new legislation creates a new financial landscape; second, housing providers collect large amounts of data as a core part of their business activities; and third, effective use of this data could drive new insights into service delivery, business improvement and the development of a robust evidence base on the social value created by housing providers’ activities.
The project we are describing was intended to help the care and support business of a large social housing provider develop its capacity to produce effective business intelligence (BI).
What is BI? In short, BI is about leveraging value from business performance data. Getting BI right provides you with a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your organization, identifies the potential to cut costs and losses, and highlights where improvements in service delivery could be made.
What makes BI so important to the social housing sector? The simple answer is better decision making. The slightly longer answer is providing the capacity to improve outcomes by providing better, more tailored and customer-appropriate services, while reducing operating costs.
We worked with the care and support business of a large provider to source and collect the data it needed to assess the impact its services have on customers, and the value that those services create for commissioners. The business employs over 1,000 staff and has a total turnover of approximately £55 million, including £10 million on agencies, £24 million on supported housing, and £20 million on older persons. The business works with 80 different independent providers to ensure its customers receive services that meet their needs effectively.
The business vision was to become one of the most efficient providers of community investment services, transforming lives and communities. In a competitive market, it wanted the advantage of having access to information regarding where spending achieves the greatest impact in achieving the desired impact for customers.
We set out to help the business collect and analyse their data in a way that would enable them to quantify the costs of each element of their service, compare the efficiency of delivery across different care settings, and quantify the impact on customers and ultimately the financial benefits to service commissioners.
Our approach involved working closely with the business’s in-house research team through four processes: developing a logic map; identifying the right performance data; evaluating the impact of services; and finally, calculating the relative costs and benefits of specific services.
Developing a logic map
This first stage was to help people think critically about how their services change customers’ lives. Working closely with front-line delivery staff, we drew up a detailed map of service components and how they thought each one brought about change for customers.
Identifying the right performance data
Albert Einstein famously said: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’ The next step was to make sure the business was collecting the right performance data. If delivery of any part of the logic map could not be monitored, that meant there were evidence gaps that had to be filled. We used a simple business case framework developed by the National Audit Office map data collection. It organises data into four categories: resources (what is being spent), inputs (what it is being spent on), outputs (what the service delivers) and outcomes (the impact that the service has on end users).
Once we had all the necessary data, we stored it in a simple Excel-based data warehouse. The final product created a robust analytical tool the business could use to develop clearly-evidenced business cases for services for homeless customers. Equally as importantly, the business could use the tool to monitor business performance with regard to economy (are we paying the right amount for our resources?), efficiency (are those resources delivering as we would expect?), and effectiveness (are services delivering change for customers?).
The third element of the project was to evaluate the impact of services on homeless customers. Because we had the right data stored in the Excel-based data-warehouse, we were able to explore the relative impact different service components had on customers’ lives. Our modelling highlighted the critical role economic factors played in helping customers to achieve independent living. We found help with education, with employment and with training all made a difference to customers’ ability to generate an income. Where customers had specific needs around social contact, substance misuse, mental health and the exercise of choice and involvement, it was important for services to meet those needs.
The analysis also highlighted the value of having robust risk assessment procedures. Services for homeless customers must have the capacity to reliably identify and subsequently meet individual needs if they are going to be effective. A key business issue was making sure risk assessments (a) provided an accurate picture of client needs; and (b) informed subsequent decisions about the kind of support customers received.
The final part of the project was to deliver a cost-benefit analysis (CBA). We compared the costs of each intervention with the impact on customers (expressed in monetary terms). Our analyses suggested that services for homeless customers represented good value for money in the medium to long term. It took time for customers to turn their lives around, but once achieved, that change brought with it financial benefits not just to themselves, but to their communities as well.
Delivering the capacity for good BI, the project highlighted several important issues for the business:
- The importance of effective relationships between support workers and customers;
- The extent to which successful outcomes rely on reliable risk assessment;
- The potential to improve cost-effectiveness by targeting support more effectively;
- The key role that support for education, employment and training has for customers;
- The important contribution of meeting individual needs around social contact, substance misuse, mental health and the exercise of choice and involvement;
- The importance for customers of social networks and a feeling of having control over their lives; and
- That business cases need to include consideration of the medium to long term net benefits of services.
The project successfully delivered a unique and robust analytical capacity that enabled the care and support business to optimise cost-effectiveness across services for homeless customers and respond to demands for evidence of impact that are becoming an integral part of the contracting process.
Dr Tony Munton is the managing director of theRTK.