Paragon, like most other housing providers, is only too aware of the impact of Welfare Reform on our business. It is now more important than ever for our IT teams to work closely, not only with front-line staff, but also with senior management to streamline technology or processes – but in an ideal situation, both.
We have to be realistic about the limitations of our existing software and hardware compared with any proposed new software in terms of its ability to deliver, how it integrates with our existing housing management systems and also the ever-present ‘vision for the future’.
People in the housing sector must be wondering whether constant long-term investment in software that claims to adapt as needs change has really done that, or whether their pre-conceived notion of achieving ‘value for money’ in the long run was unrealistic.
Perhaps IT teams are starting to visualise how they can support their organisations with smart thinking, shared knowledge, application infrastructure and an aptitude for being agile, rather than an over-reliance on maintaining IT systems, hardware and software.
While the impact of universal credit and welfare reform is enough to shock most housing providers into action, it also represents a unique opportunity for in-house IT specialists or external consultants to support the variety of services within the housing sector. At a time where the trust between housing provider and tenant is so crucial, support and assurance from IT is vital.
In light of these reforms, how is Paragon doing to gear up for the changes and how is our IT team involved with that? To that end, we’re focusing on strong communications, new hardware, giving choice and flexibility in rent payment options and training for residents.
Paragon’s IT team has worked closely with the design and communications team to ensure that we are communicating effectively with residents. We have begun working collaboratively to redesign our rent statements and rent arrears letters. We are encouraging more of our residents to sign-up to email communications and our income teams are using SMS texting to help with arrears, supported by IT.
The IT team is helping our business users to drill down into the data we hold on our residents and to analyse our stock in the hope of targeting communications better. We are looking at how we can streamline and automate reporting to make the process more effective.
We are building a new website with a strong focus on user experience and user testing prior to the launch so we can really understand how our residents want to navigate around the site. As the trend towards small screens and mobiles continues, with the majority of sites seeing at least 15 per cent of traffic on mobile and tablet devices, we have decided to invest in a responsive design from the initial build phase; a responsive design allows a website to re-size to fit the screen being used by the resident. Websites used to be about posting information but we now understand that we have to go further and make our new site as interactive and user-friendly as possible.
We are working very closely with the web developers to help them understand what we want to achieve, how we work in-house and what we want to be able to change ourselves in future in the back-end content management system.
Hardware and infrastructure
So we’ve thought about how people will engage with Paragon from smartphones, tablets and TVs, but we are also looking at how we can equip our housing teams so that they can work remotely, visit residents, record data and take rent payments with tablets and handheld devices. We appreciate the need to give our staff the best technology we can, but this will naturally be constrained by the budget. The IT team is developing a bring your own device (BYOD) so that our end-users can use their own technology to enhance their workflow, and we are improving our server environment to accommodate more mobile devices.
We are also simplifying our IT infrastructure by moving some of our remaining physical servers to virtual machines on the basis that applications run better when virtualised and this is especially true for business-critical applications. Migrating physical servers over to virtual machines and consolidating them onto far fewer physical servers means lower monthly power and cooling costs in the datacentre, plus most virtualisation platforms now offer a number of advanced features not found on physical servers, which helps with business continuity and increased uptime.
Choice & flexibility in payment options
Towards the end of last year we decided to review our payment options. We now use Allpay in order to offer our residents a direct debit service on any day of the month, to reflect the fact that universal credit can be paid to recipients on any day of the month. This service has the potential to reduce rent arrears because direct debits can be aligned to the day when a resident receives their universal credit. Starting this process now has allowed us to prepare for the changes and embed the new system into our internal processes. As the service is largely managed externally, this has meant that our IT and finance teams can shift their focus to other projects. Our hope is that our residents will come to recognise the Allpay brand as being associated with payments by phone, app, Post Office and of course, direct debits.
Training for residents
In our view, welfare reform and digital inclusion go hand in hand. We are looking into what kind of IT training would help our residents and in turn help us, including the possibility of working with local organisations to pool resources.
There is a strong need to involve our design and communications team to encourage the take-up of training courses, combined with consideration of how and where, having completed the training, residents will be able to access computers and the internet. We are therefore working closely with the resident involvement teams to map out potential community projects and computer hubs.
It will be interesting to see how we can help our residents apply for universal credit online, particularly as there is much speculation about how long it takes to complete an online form, even for an experienced user.
The impact of welfare reform and universal credit on IT teams is colossal. Without their strong support, engagement and delivery, housing providers could struggle with spiralling arrears and poor resident understanding. However this is also a good time to execute great transformation, evolution and adaptability within IT.
Hannah Elford is the design and communications manager and Thurle Phillips is the applications manager at Paragon Community Housing Group.