Monday, 29 June 2015

Delivering digital - why we need a message which resonates

This month I've invited Jamie Angus, he's our Head of Communications to share his thoughts about why we need to be getting more people using the internet...
Jamie Angus
Last week saw the publication, probably for the first time, of a detailed state of play of the UK housing sector when it comes to delivering digital services.
All-in-all it doesn’t make for great reading in terms of the sector’s success of transforming service delivery in the digital age. Yet if you read the bloggersphere and believe the hype of the Twitteratti you’d think that the Jetsons’ hovercrafts were just weeks away.

The reality, which the self service report draws out, is that clunky IT systems, a lack of credible data on accessibility for tenants and a reluctance to promote a service which is far from Amazon-standard is holding us back.

But what strikes me the most is that as a sector we still haven’t nailed down why we’re doing this. We haven’t constructed the narrative as to why this is so important.
It reminds me of a great blog by Kate Bentham (@katebentham) where she refers to Channel Shove rather than Channel Shift.

We’ve all seen the transactional costs data and in a time where financially, we’re scrambling to strangle the last drop of value from every penny spent, we can see why online is such an attractive proposition. But if you go to any estate in Wolverhampton, or indeed any estate across the country, and tell tenants that going online is great – it’ll save us a fortune, then you can probably guess what most reactions will be. And this feels like the challenge we’re grappling with.

But the truth is, and this is the message which needs to resonate with tenants, they risk getting left behind if they’re not online. With Universal Credit on the horizon it’s never been more important that tenants, especially those of working age, get ready by being online. The stark reality could well be that no internet access equals no Universal Credit payment. I of course over simplify, but when you think about the message of missing out, it fits better with the raison d’etre of social housing. By not being online, tenants are missing out on job opportunities, financial savings, better energy deals, the chance to connect with friends and family. All of a sudden, the digital agenda ticks the moral boxes of financial and social inclusion, fuel poverty and social mobility.

????????????????????????????????????At Wolverhampton Homes we’ve been grappling with the challenges of Channel Shift. It’s been an uncomfortable process but we’re making progress. And, in fact, although we may not have shouted the loudest, our statistics are credible and show we’re up there. The Yorkshire Housing report pretty much states there are no real pioneers yet. Yes, some are better than others at promoting it, but as a sector, we’re still finding our feet – but think of the potential if we all worked together to nail this.

In Wolverhampton, with a tenant-base of 23,000 – nearly 6,000 are signed up to our do-it-online account. Last month, we had nearly 1,000 active users logging-in to either make a payment, change their details or book a repair. Interestingly, our repairs booking system (although it’s far from perfect) is fully automated into our back office systems and allows tenants to pick a time which suits them. No e-forms which go to a customer service advisor to manually input; it’s fully automated self-service.
But we know that for most people they’d still pick up the phone. As proud as we are of our website and its mobile-responsive design, booking a repair online isn’t sexy enough to drive thousands of tenants there.
But the challenge isn’t so much getting people to report repairs online; that should come later. Just being online is the key. People won’t come to our websites excited by the fact that the internet means they can book repairs or update their personal details. But they will be excited when they’re saving money, switching energy suppliers, helping their kids with their homework and applying for jobs and training. But that’s not a message we can deliver on our own – so we’re looking to work with schools and businesses in the city to promote that message too.

It’s a long digital road ahead, and although the technology will no doubt improve, if we can’t win the hearts and minds of tenants and colleagues then it’s going to be an arduous journey.

But we can and will win the debate, we have to, our tenants have got too much to lose if we don’t.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Universal Credit - a bit like England losing on penalties

Mark Hendeson, Director of Housing at Wolverhampton Homes

Every so often it's nice to get the views and opinions of other people on my blog so I'm handing over the reins today to my Director of Housing, Mark Henderson - and he's already talking about football!

Preparing for Universal Credit over the past eighteen months or so has felt a little bit like England losing on penalties to Germany – it’s an inevitability; it will happen in the future; we’re just not too sure when.

So earlier this week when it was announced that we’ll be part of the final tranche of West Midlands authorities transferring over, there was a strange element of relief that at least we now know.

For some time now we’ve been bombarding our staff and our tenants with the message that Universal Credit is on the horizon - it’s on its way! But it’s a tough sell when you can’t say for definite when. The definition of ‘Coming Soon’ has been stretched somewhat – given that the start for new, single person claimants in Wolverhampton will be sometime between December 2015 and April 2016. 

But despite the frustrations of not knowing exactly when this is happening – what it does do is provide us with an opportunity. We’ve got a little bit more time than most to prepare as best we can. Unlike the under-occupancy charge where we had data and knew 90% of those who were likely to be affected; with Universal Credit it’s much harder. The first claimants of ours may not even be tenants at the moment and could well be in work and not claiming a penny of benefits right now.

What we do know though is that eventually, as claims for other benefits such as Job seekers allowance and tax credits are closed, around 1 in 3 tenants – that’s 8,500 – will end up transferring to Universal Credit; that’s a logistically tough challenge (and a huge business risk).

So without knowing who our first Universal Credit applicants will be, being focussed and targeted is tricky. What we can do though is set out three clear messages:

1) You need to be online
2) You need a bank or credit union account
3) You need to put a bit aside each month in preparation for Universal Credit being paid monthly.

For how long can you say 'coming soon'?
But what we do have already is buy-in from across the company. Colleagues know how this could impact our customers and our business so we’re drawing Universal Credit champions from tenants, staff members and customers alike to make sure that we’re as ready as we can be. And as part of our preparation, where customers may struggle, we’ll be encouraging them to apply for a short-term benefits advance, to give a buffer, and not allow arrears to build up, in advance of their first Universal Credit payment.

We’re also working with our neighbouring authorities – and that’s key. It’s like a Universal Credit self-help group. But aside from the opportunity to vent frustrations - it’s actually a really useful way of learning, sharing ideas and building effective networks.

We’re also re-focussing our business objectives. More than 5,000 tenants are signed up to our do-it-online account and we’re making a big push to get more and more services accessible through our website. No doubt mobile-apps and so on will follow – the next two or three years will see a revolution in housing terms when it comes to technology, of that I’m sure.

Employability is right at the top of the agenda too. We’re already linking in with local job clubs and utilising our double-award winning LEAP apprenticeship programme to get more tenants ready to get back into work and training.

But to a degree there’s only so much preparation you can do. At some stage you just need to get your head down and get on with it and see what quirks the new system will throw up.

But – with an election on the horizon – maybe there will be some tweaks and changes before our live date. The NFA’s call this week for payments to go directly to landlords for those tenants who’d prefer it to is a sensible suggestion. After all, individual choice is important – and if a direct payment to landlords is the best way for them to make sure their rent is paid and their home is secured, then surely that’s a win-win all round?

Whatever happens in the next 12 months – we’ll be as ready as we can be.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Dear Prime Minister...can we have more houses please

With the General Election just 65 days away – the issue of housing seems to be creeping back up the political agenda.

Over the past few days we’ve seen housing re-enter the top 10 list of voter concerns according the pollsters at Ipsos Mori. I’m delighted to see housing enter the political fray again. Over the last six months it seemed to have dropped off the radar but now it’s back; and the political parties seem to be taking note. All of the parties have been talking about it over the past few weeks and if the polls are to be believed, we could be heading for another coalition; so maybe it’s a good sign that there’s common ground amongst them when it comes to recognising that more needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis.

Later this month I’m heading down to London to take part in what’s being billed as one of the largest housing rally’s for a generation. The Homes For Britain campaign is uniting the housing sector as one voice – for the first time projecting one simple message – whoever has the keys to Number 10 in May – they need to set out a plan to solve the country’s housing crisis within a generation.

Some will say we need more aspiring homeowners, others will say we need more affordable homes and people like me will say we need lots more council housing to solve the problem. After all, in cities like Wolverhampton where there are 12,000 wanting a council house, there’s clearly a supply and demand deficit which only the government can address. The reality is, we probably need a little bit of all of these things – throw in a more regulated private landlord sector too - and you’d be well on the way.

But what we often seem to do is talk about housing as an asset or commodity – and what we really need to do is remind ourselves of the human impact housing has. Having somewhere to call home is, for me, a basic human necessity. Having somewhere that’s warm, safe – and that people can afford is a must for our society. What we do know is that the local will to make a difference is already there. Our council is an ambitious one and the 40 new homes they’ve just built in the city are a sign that locally we’re doing what we can – it’s the political will at Westminster that’s really needed now.

Not enough homes have been built over the year across the country. I think there’s been a recognition from all parties that this is an area they’ve struggled to deal with. And to be fair to them – it’s not necessarily an issue which has been at the forefront of the electorate’s mind either. The housing sector hasn’t pressed this forcefully enough – we haven’t got our message out there to the public.

But the tide is turning. Thanks to campaigns like Homes For Britain, more and more people recognise we’ve got a problem. Whether it’s young people looking to start a family, families getting bigger or older people desperate for a more suitably-sized home – people are more aware than ever that more needs to be done.

A lot can be achieved in five years - whoever enters Downing Street on 8th May may have just five years to leave their lasting legacy – wouldn’t it be something if that legacy was the solution to our country’s housing crisis?

You can find out more about Homes For Britain at