From Mark Summers, head of technology sales for JMC IT.
Universal credit remains in its relative infancy, moving from a pilot phase to a staged UK-wide rollout in April 2014. Yet it is already clear that welfare reform is changing the country’s social housing landscape for good and, according to some, not necessarily for the better.
Technology has a crucial part to play, particularly given that universal credit claims can only be completed online. Tenants, their landlords and housing officers alike have been forced to learn a great deal about themselves and their technological capabilities in the past year as they have either had to comply or are preparing to. It will be crucial to build on this IT literacy if all parties want to gain the knowledge they need to survive and thrive.
Since universal credit pilots began in April 2013, housing providers have seen increased pressure to find value for money from every single expenditure. Added to the need to become more commercially viable, those monitoring the trials of universal credit will have noticed the predictions regarding rent arrears. These have risen by as much as 600 per cent in some areas since the pilots began, prompting providers to hold back vast amounts of money to cover the seemingly inevitable deficits. Funding has become much harder to secure as a result and revenue is unpredictable, with procurement challenges a reality for most social housing providers.
The housing sector has already proved its ability to familiarise itself with technology and act in an agile manner to create savings during the past year. There has been a shift from capital expenditure (CapEx) to a preference for operational expenditure (OpEx), prompted in no small part by the changing IT marketplace. Microsoft’s new licensing rules in 2012 enforced the removal of discounts for housing providers on a two-year notice period, and those who fixed their deals at the time now face expensive renewals. In addition, the growing popularity of cloud models has provoked a move towards monthly software rental fees in place of outright purchases. For organisations wanting to budget and ensure financial stability, paying for IT resources and support via OpEx has become a far more attractive prospect because it circumvents concerns over the vast funds that would be needed for CapEx projects.
Fostering flexibility while ensuring efficiency
This responsive, agile attitude forms part of a wider trend for efficiency among housing providers, which is set to deepen in the year ahead. With every expenditure expected to show a return on investment, organisations are looking for technology that enables housing officers to multi-task and work flexibly. Staff must be equipped to do their job at their optimum ability and service the needs of tenants in the best possible way, limiting the chances of dissatisfied end-users and subsequent arrears.
Technology solutions that meet this need grew in popularity in 2013 and will continue to in 2014, with Microsoft Lync, Citrix XenDesktop and mobile device management solutions providing prime examples. Many organisations have driven efficiencies of work, and indeed IT investment, from these solutions to securely connect the entire workforce, regardless of location or device. If a housing officer chooses to spend the day in front of tenants and working within the community to guide them through universal credit, they are just as contactable as their colleagues sitting in front of a computer and telephone in the head office. Microsoft Lync in particular has enabled ‘right first time’ policies for many housing providers, allowing anybody contacting the organisation, whether they are a tenant or a stakeholder, to be immediately be put in touch with someone to answer their query. This is made possible by Lync’s compatibility with traditional and mobile devices, connecting people seamlessly through voice calls, instant messaging, video and even sharing desktops for collaboration. Virtualisation powered by the latest version of XenDesktop is aligned to HD multimedia and even the latest touch devices so that staff can access their complete IT system, including telephony and video conferencing, from any location, on any device.
Not only does this flexible approach improve relationships with tenants, it also brings commercial benefits that are crucial for organisations looking to boost efficiency. Many housing providers want to scale back their head office footprint and instead encourage staff to work remotely and within the community. This is a more intuitive way of serving the needs of tenants, with the added benefit that overheads are reduced and staff are more satisfied due to having a choice in how they work.
Building solid foundations
To maximise investments in technology that enable new ways of working, as well as capitalising on all other IT expenditure, such as software to process universal credit payments, social housing providers must ensure they have the right support in place. Housing providers are running numerous applications and placing their IT infrastructure under the spotlight; in the current economy, as providers look to set themselves apart from the competition, it is crucial that they protect their assets – both physical and virtual. Many social housing providers will be familiar with network monitoring tools, relying on systems to ensure their IT infrastructure remains connected and fully functioning. This will continue to be crucial for those navigating universal credit and should not be overlooked.
But organisations keen to remain ahead are now bolstering the benefits of system monitoring with real-time application performance management (APM). This powerful enhancement builds on network monitoring to provide real-time insights into the health of every application being run, both on the network and even tenant facing websites, to ensure applications are benchmarked in real time against service metrics, demonstrating availability to management and enabling IT to take a proactive stance to the inevitable glitches. Pre-emptive notifications of issues can prevent service interruption, improving the overall service value of IT to the organisation, while driving internal IT efficiencies.
Whether an organisation outsources all of its IT or has an internal team, or indeed a partnership combining the two, APM provides for tailored dashboards to reflect the priorities of that particular organisation. This could be the performance of housing management systems, payment processing via a website, or perhaps a system that assigns a jobs list to all maintenance staff; whatever the application, APM continuously monitors how they operate and even records this data to be replayed on demand.
With technology so integral to the housing sector, the right support means organisations can continue to deliver business benefits at the same time as responding to a growing need for efficiency. Many IT firms offer solutions and support on an OpEx basis, meaning housing providers have the opportunity to benefit from best-in-class technology at an affordable cost without a vast one-off cost. This model will become increasingly popular as organisations build the solid foundations required to handle universal credit.