Following processes correctly is no substitute for genuinely listening to tenants
"Outcomes will be more effective when there is true respect for residents and employees genuinely want to engage with them in a meaningful way."
Chan Kataria, Chief Executive
Roy, one of our active residents, proudly showed me the letter he received from the previous Housing Minister after attending one of the social housing roadshows. This was a personalised letter from Alok Sharma thanking him for his contribution and providing a summary of the key issues discussed.
Alok Sharma lasted only 7 months as Housing Minister but whatever reservations people may have had about him at the beginning, he must be credited for engaging in one of the most extensive listening exercises ever carried out by a Minister.
As the new Housing Minister, Dominic Raab has some big issues in his in-tray – delivery of 300,000 homes a year, rising homelessness and setting up a ‘large scale’ Voluntary Right to Buy regional pilot, amongst others.
The Social Housing Green Paper must surely be near the top of his agenda. Like Roy many residents of social housing up and down the country have vested a lot of time and effort in telling the Housing Minister what they think. In the aftermath of Grenfell, failure to act on these issues will have serious consequences for the credibility of the Housing Minister and government.
Messages from the roadshows are wide ranging. Initial indications suggest that these are themed around complaints and services, opportunities for resident engagement, quality of place and community and, stigmatisation of social housing.
On the surface, many of the issues are capable of being addressed through changes in policies, systems and processes. For example, the problem of ineffective complaints handling may be addressed through the review of complaints policies.
However, if this is the only thing that happens, then changes are likely to be short lived and superficial. All too often it is culture rather than mechanisms that are at fault. Lasting change can only happen if hearts and minds are dedicated to problem solving and improving lives.
There is anecdotal evidence that over the years Grenfell residents’ complaints were considered in line with proper customer complaints policies and processes. It is clear though that this is not the same as listening to residents.
I won’t pretend that we’re perfect, but at emh group we try to achieve a culture where the service issues are resolved at first point of contact and we learn from mistakes. Our complaints policy has only two internal stages. If the matter is not addressed at the first point of contact, then a panel of Board members or active residents will take a fresh look to see what we could have done differently. Leaving aside a few vexatious complainants, my experience is that the majority of complaints tend to be legitimate and could have been avoided through proper communication.
Similarly, introducing resident engagement structures is only part of the solution. The outcomes will be more effective there is true respect for residents and employees genuinely want to engage with them in a meaningful way.
Given that process solutions are only part of the answer, it won’t be surprising to note that I don’t believe additional consumer regulation is the answer. Such regulation is generally good at ensuring that appropriate minimum policies or systems are in place but does nothing to address the quality of outcomes. We all remember the Audit Commission KLOEs, which were highly prescriptive, process driven and sometimes led to the lowest common denominator. There is no evidence that this led to lasting improvements in the culture of service provision or resident engagement.
The other major theme from the ministerial roadshows is about stigmatisation of social housing. This is a problem for the sector as a whole is something we need to address as a sector. All too often a few instances where associations have failed will have a disproportionately long lasting impact on the reputation of the sector as a whole.
Ultimately, we need to start telling our story more effectively. This means telling stories about the work that we do and the impact we have on the well-being of society. This is the basis of the ‘Owning our Future’ campaign and is one that we all need to play an active part in. More than this, we need to rigorously challenge at every opportunity the stereotypical portrayal of social housing tenants as anti-social or benefit cheats.
The social housing Green Paper is a great opportunity to address residents’ concerns - let’s make the most of it!