Coastal’s head of community housing had an idea to help our community housing officers (CHOs) with arrears and came to me to help find that solution. We had some demos of current systems and we visited a few other HAs, yet we didn’t find anything that suited how we wanted to work. We sat down and asked, “What would ‘good’ look like?” and Coastal Housing’s payment plan project was born.
Our head of community housing said, “We want the CHOs to have meaningful conversations with residents in a timely manner, not having to check accounts, and the system would allow us to direct our efforts to where they can be most useful in adding value to both residents and the organisation. We don’t want a system that would just generate a rent arrears letter.”
A payment plan for all
We decided that every single resident would have a payment plan, regardless of whether they were in arrears or not, paid by direct debit or not, or if they were or weren’t in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit.
We wanted to see if anything changed in how and what was paid, such as: do they usually pay by cash but this week it was a card; do they usually pay on the 5th of the month but they’d paid on the 12th this month; or do they usually pay £100 per week but this week they’ve paid £600? These are important questions. These help us speak to residents as soon as something is different; it means we can help or point them in the direction of specialised help as early as possible. It could be that they were visiting relatives and weren’t in the area so they paid late (that’s fine, we don’t mind) but perhaps if it was because they needed to borrow money to pay the rent and other bills then we need to work with them to put them into a better financial position.
I worked on this project with our community housing manager, Nicky Fisher. We’ve worked on this project for so long that we’ve both had two promotions in the time it’s taken us to get here! He started in our rents team so he was a perfect fit for this project; he scoped how we wanted the plans and analysis to work, then he tested, tested and tested. Even though he had come from the rents team, we still wanted to check in with them during monthly meetings, particularly because we knew a lot had changed with the move from direct payments of housing benefit to universal credit.
Three simple questions
The CHOs at Coastal are generic; they can spend their days on anything from community events and ASB cases to arrears and lettings, and everything else in between. Giving them a tool that would help them manage their arrears more easily would give them more time to concentrate on value-adding work; there would be no more need for them to trawl through lists of over 300 properties to see who had paid and who hadn’t paid. We therefore asked the CHOs to contact each of their residents who weren’t on full housing benefit or direct debit to ask them the same three questions:
- When do they want to pay their rent?
- How do they want to pay their rent?
- How much do they want to pay?
Their answers to these simple questions allowed us to create the payment schedule from which to run our analysis.
We use Qlikview as a reporting tool so we felt that it was the perfect place to build the analysis of the plans. Another bonus was that we have Qlikview’s nPrinting software so that the reports can be emailed to each CHO every day so they don’t even need to go into Qlikview itself.
We’re very lucky to have the wonderful Joanne Handyside from Kick ICT (Castle Computer Services) as our Qlikview consultant – her knowledge of the system is second to none. Every time she visits us and I hand her a new project, her eyes widen a little then she sets about getting the work completed.
When we explained our payment plan and all of its associated complications (such as some residents are on weekly tenancies but pay monthly, some pay fortnightly, some pay every four weeks and so on), her eyes widened a little more than normal. Nicky, Joanne and I set about building and testing each part of the analysis. We started with the weekly and monthly payers who are easiest because they fit into the calendars that Qlikview comprises, whereas the fortnightly and four-weekly calendars had to be built from scratch by Joanne.
When we had done as much testing as possible on our own, we asked five CHOs to be part of our testing team. They were from different geographical areas in the hope that we would capture as many differences as possible.
Predicted vs. actual income
The report looks at how much rent we expect to come in and compares it to what actually comes in. Our initial worry was that the daily list of residents emailed to the CHOs would be too long and that the CHOs’ days would be solely taken up with chasing payments, so it was a great surprise when each of their daily reports only had around 15 residents on them.
Nicky said, “When we started this project, I was in a CHO role myself and rents was (and still is) a fundamental part of the job. Due to the time it took to go through the reports, we were simply carrying out rent arrears management rather than rent account management, focusing time and effort on those with large amounts of arrears.
“Missed payments are usually an indicator of a change of circumstances and it shouldn’t matter whether the account is in £500 credit or £500 arrears; we know we need to make contact with them at the earliest point. The time saved from manual checking, which the payment plan system can do for us, can be spent on more value-adding work such as contacting residents to provide support and assistance.”
We’ve learnt a lot during this process – we’ve learnt that the business is willing to prioritise one project above all else and that when different departments work together, you can create something really great and meaningful.
We’ve also learnt that just when we thought we’d finally finished, something new would crop up which sent us back into testing again. Our new mantra has become: if you think you’ve tested too much, keep testing!
Rhian Waygood is the business systems manager and Nicky Fisher is the community housing manager at Coastal Housing, and Joanne Handyside is a Qlikview consultant at Kick ICT (Castle Computer Services).