Following the publishing of The Charter for Social Housing Residents (social housing white paper) on 17th November 2020, the team at Mustard has been in discussion about the implications for tenant / customer consultation.
As per the gov.co.uk website, this long-awaited White Paper “sets out the actions the government will take to ensure that residents in social housing are safe, are listened to, live in good quality homes, and have access to redress when things go wrong”.
Mustard consults with several thousand social housing tenants every year through quantitative and qualitative market research.
Time and again, we bear witness to how the “home” is of ultimate, fundamental importance to people’s lives. For so many people in the UK, this is no ordinary “product” or “service”. With all due respect to HJ Heinz, we’re not researching Baked Beans here. Good housing can make people, just as bad housing can break people. When things do go wrong, the impact on lives (physically, mentally, emotionally) can be enormous.
That it takes tragedies such as Grenfell to awaken people to the issues relating to poor quality housing services is scandalous. These events, understandably, have ramifications on a whole nation’s trust in authority. Linking back to the White Paper, however, it is the CAUSES of these events that need addressing. News outlets relayed stories of the 72 people who were confirmed to have lost their lives at Grenfell, each a tragedy of their own. Yet these people are no different to any other social housing resident or customer. Regardless of where you live in the UK, every customer of every Housing Association will continue to lose more trust in their landlord when they:
- Do NOT feel safe in their home
- Do NOT feel listened to
- Do NOT live in a good quality home
- Do NOT feel empowered when things go wrong
Most social housing customers do not have their opinions on the sector shaped by the Grenfell tragedy. It is the customer’s “all day, everyday”, i.e., their own cumulative, immersive experiences that defines and drives their perceptions of whether their provider is succeeding or failing. Just like the “drip, drip, drip” from a faulty tap, for every unrectified problem of any description, the frustrations can easily build, just as the trust is eroded.
It should be no surprise that it is often the repairs service that comes in for the fiercest criticism in some of the sector’s research studies. For customers, these can be problems that just won’t go away, either because of a delay, a missed appointment or a repair not being completed to standard. The latter often leads to tenants feeling that their landlord doesn’t have their best interests at heart, and is more interested in cutting corners to save money. Additionally, trust and satisfaction levels fall where tenants believe that work needs completing on their home, but for whatever reason their request (is perceived to) fall on deaf ears. Too many failed promises, and the relationship is damaged (the hardest of all to repair).
Before we examine the details of the White Paper, it is worth pausing on this point of “things (sometimes) (inevitably) going wrong”, and what this means for the culture and purpose of engagement. Trust certainly continues to emerge as a key metric for ongoing measurement. If it DOES go wrong, can we be trusted to make it right? Perhaps what is also needed is a switch in mentality from “how well are we doing?” to “how badly are we doing?”. This means embedding an insight culture of learning from mistakes. Thinking less about the percentages in terms of “breadth” of satisfaction versus dissatisfaction and thinking more about the depth of dissatisfaction. Mapping the experiences of when things go wrong, and identifying how they can be avoided in the first place. This logically builds on the passion that already exists within housing associations for improving experiences, and making lives better.
The essence of the White Paper is, quite rightly, people-focused, and consultation should start from the standpoint that every individual’s cause for dissatisfaction is one case too many, so let’s face up to what’s bad in order to make it good.
The new charter for social housing residents covers 7 key promises.
- To be safe in your home. We will work with industry and landlords to ensure every home is safe and secure.
We need to be clear with our clients on what is meant by safety here. Functioning smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and electrical safety are, of course, incredibly important. Measuring the fitting and testing of alarms should be pretty straight-forward. We also need to dig a little deeper into the “feeling” of safety and security, given it is not purely a physical thing. More often it’s down to feeling safe in your household and neighbourhood, not having any issues with your neighbours, and not having to experience problems with crime and / or anti-social behaviour. What more can landlords do with this in mind? What does this mean for service design and customer communications?
- To know how your landlord is performing, including on repairs, complaints and safety, and how it spends its money, so you can hold it to account.
The HouseMark Star questions serve as the standard benchmark when it comes to performance in the sector, covering satisfaction with repairs, service, value and quality. But these metrics should be the minimum indicator of performance. If a customer is to trust its landlord, it needs to share its performance against the metrics that matter most to them. What do customers believe to be good performance? What does success look like to them? What are the tangible outcomes of performance? Housing Associations need to consult with customers to ensure they are accountable to their expectations and that any measures of success have meaningful impact.
- To have your complaints dealt with promptly and fairly, with access to a strong Ombudsman who will give you swift and fair redress when needed.
Customers often tell us they feel let down when complaints get “lost in the system” or when requests appear to go unanswered. Effective customer journey mapping is important here to “tighten up” the processes (for complaints, as well as other experiences). Where are the gaps in the system where complaints stem from? How can we better predict potential problems to stop complaints happening in the first place? What does a satisfactory resolution look like for different causes for complaint? By having clarity of the journey across priority transactions and experiences – i.e., understanding what should happen, and when, and how the customer should feel, we can then increase confidence amongst both customers and staff that there are road-mapped plans in place for reducing complaints. Then, when complaints do happen, all stakeholders will have the confidence they will be dealt with promptly, fairly and effectively.
- To be treated with respect, backed by a strong consumer regulator and improved consumer standards for tenants.
Across thousands of daily customer interactions, what does respect look like and sound like, and what does respect feel like? More importantly, referring back to the earlier points, what does disrespect look like, sound like and feel like, how can this be rectified and avoided in the first place? Are customers clear in terms of the standards they should expect from their home, and all of the supporting services?
- To have your voice heard by your landlord, for example through regular meetings, scrutiny panels or being on its Board. The Government will provide help, if you want it, to give you the tools to ensure your landlord listens.
This raises the question, how can we make sure all voices are heard in research too, even those that are more reticent to take part, or less easy to reach? As researchers we spend a lot of time making sure our methodology has the necessary breadth to give all tenants an opportunity to share their opinions with us. Online / mobile surveys, phone interviews and postal questionnaires provide tenants with options for sharing quantitative feedback. Translating surveys helps us reach those for whom English is not their first language. Face to face interviews and assisted completion surveys help us ensure more vulnerable tenants’ voices are heard. Focus groups and online communities help us dig deeper into the big issues. Applying a mixed methodology is usually the most effective and inclusive way of ensuring all customers have the opportunity to share their thoughts with their landlord.
We have also seen the value of having customers hands-on involved in the research design process too. Recently, for example, Mustard has been running through draft questionnaires with customers on Zoom calls to check that questions are clear and easy to understand, and that answer options feel appropriate.
- To have a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in, with your landlord keeping your home in good repair.
As previously stated, satisfaction with Housing Associations is often driven by the perceived speed and quality of the repairs service, and given the importance of the issue it is positive to see it “called out” in the Charter. Research tells us, however, that a home is much more than just the four walls of the property a tenant lives in. Housing Associations play a key role in helping customers create a “home” and having pride in the home and the neighbourhood should be a shared goal. Customers taking pride in their neighbourhood and caring about the other people living nearby creates a virtuous circle. When communal areas are in disrepair, and tenants feel isolated from their neighbours, it shows up markedly in their survey satisfaction scores. We need to think beyond meeting tenants’ basic needs and consider how community, environment and experience impact on perceptions of “quality” across the sector.
- To be supported to take your first step to ownership, so it is a ladder to other opportunities, should your circumstances allow.
As well as operating in the social renting sector, many of our clients also provide housing and services to leasehold and shared-ownership customers. The likely success of customers embarking on this journey with their landlord boils down, again, to the issue of trust. Customers tell us they become resentful when their relationship with a landlord becomes transactional, based only on the payment of rent and service fees. Tenants want to be reassured that their landlord cares about their lives, and wants the best for them, and they want to see evidence of this. Communications is key; How can Housing Associations be more demonstrative of their support? What makes tenants feel valued, and how can we replicate this at scale? What outcomes are customers aiming for, and what role can Housing Associations play in helping them reach them? The answer, quite probably, lies in asking them.
Overall, having digested The Charter for Social Housing Residents, we believe that a shared passion already exists for delivering these promises within the sector. There were no big surprises, and no dramatic changes in direction. Rather, the White Paper provides extra clarity on what customers should expect. Yet also, a few questions remain for us to understand what things like “safety”, “security”, “respect”, etc. actually mean within the context of a plethora of daily customer interactions.
From a researcher’s perspective, our summary of the implications is as follows:
- Our clients are generally very open to change and continuous improvement, but the sector as a whole can no longer be content with ‘the way it’s always done things’. To deliver on this Charter, all Housing Associations will have to embrace a culture of continuous improvement. In other words, not stopping until it’s right first time.
- Quantitative measurement of experiences remains fundamentally important, and we should consider whether to design in more “close the loop” consultation when we find causes for dissatisfaction and a breakdown in trust.
- Qualitative understanding of experiences becomes more important. We need to ensure customer journeys and experiences are aligned to expectations, with increased impetus to find out why things go wrong and to stop the problems at source.
- Across all research methods, greater efforts can also be made to ensure we are engaging with customers whose voices are seldom heard.
- All Housing Associations should commit to getting as close as possible to customers, not just through research and consultation, but also through improved capture and management of data. The recurring theme of “right first time” is made much easier when you know more about who the customer is, and good quality data can ultimately be used to predict needs (and problems) too.
To discuss any of the issues raised in this blog, feel free to contact Richard Walker, Colin Auton or David Hickson on 0161 235 5270.