If we’d just arrived from the planet Zog and tried to understand UK social housing from the media alone, we’d get a very dim and depressing view. While I’m sure most news reports are more or less accurate, I think they hide the fact that most people living in social housing do have safe, comfortable and affordable homes with a responsive landlord who cares about them and their needs. And some don’t. And that’s something we absolutely have to get to grips with.
These days traditional media such as TV news and newspapers are supposedly losing their influence in favour of social media and ‘citizen journalism’. But despite those claims it’s clear that ‘old media’ still carry clout when influencing the world of housing.
Take a look at the still ongoing response to the tragic Grenfell Tower fire around the safety of homes. Or the impact of Kwajo Tweneboa, backed up by good old tv and paper journalists, in making the social housing sector jump to attention around mould, damp and disrepair.
I confess to feeling somewhat conflicted about how the media fit into the social housing picture. Scary headlines may call us into action but they can also distort the picture. They can cause a knee jerk response that might fix the symptoms but doesn’t cure the underlying problem. On the other hand though, if our sector has problems, I want to know about it – and media interest definitely makes people sit up and pay attention.
I think my concerns come from the risk that ‘shock-horror’ soundbites sometimes catch the attention but at the same time risk moving the attention away from the people affected. Clearly if the media can help to get a social housing resident out of a ‘stuck’ situation and get their landlord to fix things that has to be a good thing. But what happens then?
While the media naturally have a job to do – I think the best thing that housing associations can do is forge their own path regardless, and one that is absolutely focused on customers and their needs. We shouldn’t have to wait to be ‘named and shamed’ to tackle shoddy homes or botched repairs – this is stuff that should be in our DNA.
Against that background I’m really pleased that the pendulum of attention for housing providers is swinging well and truly back to customers after a period when other bits of our work, such as development and becoming more commercial, were perhaps more visible and in vogue. I’m not suggesting that the sector stopped thinking or caring about customers, but I do think we may have got caught up in other distractions. So I for one truly welcome this renewed emphasis on the people we exist to support.
So looking ahead the new consumer regulation standards are coming down the tracks hot on the heels of the national Tenant Satisfaction Measures. Government and sector bodies are urging us to ‘go back to basics’, engage with customers and ensure that first and foremost the homes we offer are safe, affordable and comfortable. I’m happy to say that I think Futures can hold its head up high and say that we have consistently prioritised our customers and their needs. Our current corporate plan – launched four years ago – has being customer-centric as its first objective. And that plan isn’t some abstract thing sat on a shelf – if the basis of all our strategies and operational plans so shapes our work every day. We have our own in house research and intelligence team an in many cases we were already asking our customers questions that were the same or very close to those in the standardised tenant satisfaction measures. So it only took small adjustments to being our research into line. That’s not to say we haven’t made mistakes or still need to improve of course.
We recently got top gradings from the Regulator of Social Housing for governance and financial viability. When they next visit in a few years’ time – they also be inspecting us on the consumer standards. We’ve already started the work to get on the front foot by, for example, refreshing our customer engagement strategy, restructuring our community teams to be more visible and accessible to our customers and expanding our complaints team to make sure that when we do get it wrong we’re equipped to put it right and learn from our mistakes.
There’s still work to do. We know we don’t hear from some of our customers for long periods. That could mean that all is well – but we can’t be complacent about that so are looking at ways of checking-in more often with this group to ensure their voices are heard and their needs met. We’re mid-way through introducing a new customer relationship management system. When it’s fully deployed we should finally have a single view of all our customer transactions – that provides great opportunities to learn from the data that creates and potentially become more proactive than reactive to customer need. We can also do more to show customers that their views do influence what we do.
To steal the words of another housing association – our customers are subject matter experts when it comes to their homes and our services so let’s listen and learn. And while following trends may be attractive, customers should be the one topic that never goes out of fashion.