A quick canter around the internet at the moment will tell you all you need to know about universal credit:
- It will start in October 2013;
- It replaces Jobseekers Allowance, Employment Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit;
- A pilot will run in four areas [at the time of writing] from April 2013.
There are web-pages, blogs, forums and social media pages telling you all about how this will affect the disabled, the elderly and tenants in social housing. That’s all well and good if you are connected, but unfortunately many of the people who need access to this information are not connected in the first place!
And it gets worse, because one of the more important pieces of information is hard to find, either on or offline. This is the news that universal credit is ‘digital by default’; for the uninitiated, that means that claimants will only be able to apply for it via the internet.
Figures vary wildly, depending on whom you talk to, but regardless of the exact figures, it is clear that large numbers of tenants are either not online, have never been online or don’t have access in their homes, with some surveys suggesting that 25 per cent of tenants in some areas have “no desire to get onto the internet”.
So what does this mean for the housing sector? In simple terms, if your tenants can’t get online, they can’t make a claim so they won’t receive their universal credit, which means you won’t get your rent.
How can IT help?
Housing providers will want their ICT teams to make sure that the systems are up to date and that they do all they can to help the operational teams remain on top of their work. Effective contact management will be fundamental to making sure that anyone in the organisation who is dealing with a tenant has access to the most up-to-date picture. Customer profiling is merely information, and information is pointless unless you can use it; information with context becomes intelligence. Housing providers need to be able to predict late or non-payment based on trends, and need to have the ability to pick up when a known good payer has a Direct Debit that suddenly fails or when a tenant starts to pay a few pounds less each month.
What about digital inclusion?
You could launch a dedicated ISP to provide your tenants with broadband, such as the Diamond-net service I created in my previous role at North Lincolnshire Homes. Diamond-net is a broadband service which offers speeds of up to 50mbs and does not require the use of a phone line. This makes the service more accessible for tenants and the costing matrix makes it more affordable too.
However, the truth is that all that does is provide the means, not the desire. One of the most important things a housing provider can do is to educate its tenants about the issue.
Many have already set up housing task forces and run road-shows to explain what’s happening, when, and to talk to tenants about areas such as under-occupancy and direct payments. Some have provisioned public access equipment in existing community venues and are running basic introductory courses for customers to learn how to access and use the internet. Others have teamed up with UK Online and are directing customers to these services. However, only a few have really got to grips with the digital aspect.
Start by assembling the right team in your organisation, and get external advice and help if you need it, covering areas such as ICT, PR and communications, customer service and resident involvement, and if you already have a universal credit task force, you will want them onboard as well.
You need people on your team whom the tenants know and trust for advice, and they need your technical expertise.
Then you need to engage with your tenants and get some detail on the specific barriers at play in your area. The need for a BT landline is often a problem due to the credit checks, deposits, connection charges and long contracts involved, but there will be different issues in each area. And don’t forget desire and technical ability; they are usually quite near the top of the list as well.
The main thing is for all housing providers to establish a clear, forward-looking digital inclusion strategy that links with their customer access strategy.
Customer access strategies will become increasingly important because housing providers are likely to see a large increase in the number of customer enquiries they have to deal with. Tenants will want help and advice when dealing with all the changes to the welfare system and they will turn first to their housing provider. ‘Channel shift’ will help housing providers deal with these enquiries faster and more cost-effectively if they implement robust strategies to take advantage of the newer channels that their customers can use.
Don’t be fooled into the ‘build it and they will come’ mindset, because they will only come if you make it worth their while. There has to be some benefit to the tenant in using the internet as a channel to contact you. Telling them that universal credit is digital by default is one way, but there are many more. For example, DWP says that digital skills are a factor in 72 per cent of all jobs.
So is it an IT problem?
If I’m honest, I don’t think it is. The likelihood is that it will be better dealt with by your resident involvement team, but they may lack the technical skills and knowledge to explain the issue. That’s why a cross-team approach will work best, with ICT at the heart of that team to support the message and its delivery, and using its technical skills to provide innovative and maybe even ground-breaking solutions.
Martin Shakespeare from DWP’s stakeholder engagement team recently told a seminar that, “If we can’t get people online, [universal credit] will fall at the first hurdle.”
Of course universal credit will run on technology, and there are whispers that the new IT system might not be ready on time, but that’s someone else’s headache, right?
Mike Eckersley is a senior housing IT consultant at Capita.