Local authorities and housing providers must use data to provide a faster and more efficient service for the tenants they serve, says Gary Bell, Civica’s executive director for managed services.
Universal credit, the government’s ‘flagship reform’ of the benefits system, was introduced to make welfare payments easier for local authorities and housing providers. It was hoped that combining the likes of unemployment benefit, housing benefit and tax credits into one monthly payment would ultimately simplify the process.
While good in theory, problems with the roll-out, including many system design flaws and administrative glitches, are having a negative impact, not just on housing providers and local authorities but the citizens that they serve.
With around 6.5 million households still to move onto universal credit due to a phased roll-out, the pressure is set to grow. The impact of Universal Credit was therefore one of the key topics on the agenda at one of Civica’s recent leadership forums, attended by executives from local government and housing providers. Our panel of leaders not only discussed the reasons behind some of the challenges but also looked at ways in which technology can be used to overcome them.
Know your citizens
By understanding a tenant’s credit history, you can better judge and determine how people can pay debts and stay out of arrears. By identifying those who might have payment issues, housing providers will be better placed to work with those people likely to be impacted by universal credit early on in order to anticipate small issues before they become major problems. For example, if a tenant clearly has funds but is paid at an inconvenient time of the month with respect to the universal credit and rent cycles then payment dates could be shifted.
This is a strategy being employed by Cartrefi Conwy, whose finance director, Tony Deakin, said at our forum, “We’ve undertaken work with Experian to understand the credit history of our tenants and their propensity to pay online or via direct debit. We are also using basic ‘nudge’ principles in order to better understand how we can influence our tenants’ payment methods. All of this was influential in our work to develop and promote our online payment portal.”
Use data to see the bigger picture
While local authorities and housing providers already hold a large amount of data on tenants, the challenge for all public-sector organisations is in making sense of that data in order to provide tangible benefits for end-users. These insights can also help better manage housing providers’ resources and workloads by highlighting when they might need more employees or focused project teams.
One organisation doing just that is Prospect Housing. Its director, Brendan Fowler, talked about how they are using technology to adapt their arrears modules; predictive analytics is allowing them to see who is regularly missing payments or paying late, in turn enabling them to liaise with tenants to identify new payment dates and methods to ensure they don’t fall into debt.
Map the customer journey
Housing providers will also benefit from looking at the multiple service points tenants use to get in touch and make payments to them. For example, having a 360° view of a tenant’s payment journey could allow them to notice that a tenant is behind with their rent and then map that back to see whether or not they have received their universal credit.
While the issues surrounding universal credit are well documented, one key take-away from our leadership forum was that many housing providers are taking positive action to not only lessen the negative impact of universal credit but to also move forward to create better services for their tenants.
This sentiment was encapsulated by Manjeet Gill, interim chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council, who said, “The key thing we have discovered is the need to be positive – there’s been an element of learning. We need to find the digital champions and the community development advocates to get people online.”
With much work still to be done, housing providers need to turn to data to offer their tenants a faster, more efficient service to enable universal credit to become the positive reform it was intended to be.
Gary Bell is the executive director for managed services at Civica.