Friday, 24 February 2012

What Are We Doing About Worklessness?

It’s encouraging to see that as the country warms up for the arrival of the Olympics that we are already hitting record-breaking form. It’s unfortunate in this context though as the record broken was the unemployment rate, which rose to 8.4% - the highest level for 16 years. This is a national issue but it’s something that we find in our own communities. Manchester as a whole had 4.4% unemployment but Old Trafford and Stretford were higher with 4.5%, Trafford was slightly lower with 3.1%. Despite the merest hints of growth among the number of job vacancies (no one mention green shoots of recovery,,,), this is a desperate picture.

Green shoots of recovery?
Worklessness is a key issue for us as an organisation and I feel it's something that the government could more directly connect with Housing Associations over - there's a real opportunity to use the position of our organisations to attack unemployment in direct and indirect ways.

We target worklessness not just because of the moral imperative to help, but also because it is key to our success as an organisation. We have a stated aim to be at the heart of our neighbourhoods. Worklessness destroys not just the lives of those directly affected, but the lives of those indirectly associated with unemployment. It has a tendency to make people dependent, when housing professionals and others in public service are seeking to encourage people who can, to take more personal responsibility. Equally, we have a duty to protect our income and tackling worklessness takes us another step towards knowing that tenants have the capacity to pay their rent.

So how do we help? We’ve split our work into five different categories, all of which we see as essential steps to combating worklessness.

  • Capacity Building – this is the process of equipping people with the specific and general skills that they need to enter the workforce. One example of this is that we recently had 40 school leavers who did a six week confidence-building course preparing them for life outside of school. 
  • Job Readiness – this is where we help to equip people with awareness of the different careers that are out there for them and connect different groups with available opportunities. The back to work schemes we run for those who have been out of work for nine months have been popular and successful. 
  • Work Experience – we offer work experience at nearly every level of the Trust and have schemes such as Bright Futures which takes young people from five schools in the area and exposes them to work roles and responsibility within the Trust. 
  • Jobs with our Partners – at every partnership level we have we look to create employment. For example, the building contractors we work with are expected to take on apprentices to provide ways into the construction industry. 
  • Jobs with the Trust – we run schemes like Clean Start that offer employment opportunities to ex-offenders and we’re also starting our search for six apprentices to join THT in real posts which will give them a salary, exposure to work and ongoing training. 
This final scheme is especially pertinent. Although it would be wrong to characterise the unemployment issue the UK is facing as exclusively a young person’s problem, we have to accept that this is where the brunt of the burden is falling. Unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds hit 22.2% nationally - representing 1.06 million young people who are without work. In our own borough the extra pressure on the young is reflected with an unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds of 8.6%. Nevermind the Nimbys, this is the era of the NEETS.

With the news this week of the departure of Emma Harrison from A4E this would be the ideal opportunity for the government to start exploring the ways that they could better capitalise on the work Housing Associations are already doing to address unemployment. Across the range of HAs - there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that we have considerable success. Such is the importance of the issue of unemployment that it will always require approaching from different angles. While organisations motivated by financial return can have their place, it seems sensible to consider further incentivising the role non-profit distributing bodies can play too. This has to start with recognising the work that HAs are already doing and then looking at how they can best be encouraged to improve and extend the schemes they have in place. Over to Whitehall...

Friday, 17 February 2012

To Be, Or Not To Be A VAT Sharer?

When it was first announced in December last year I blogged about the froth of excitement (and I use that word advisedly) that the issue of VAT sharing might cause among Registered Social Landords. Nearly three months later and I’ve calmed down enough to form some more concrete conclusions about the role that VAT sharing could potentially have in the coming months. I’d like to make an offer to readers of this blog and followers on Twitter. I’m looking to get your thoughts and opinions on VAT sharing and I wonder if anyone would find it useful to join us in getting an external expert on the issue to construct a useful model that we could follow – if you want in, or you’re just such an expert let me know.
Will sharing be as popular in the offline world?

As I see it the big change is that the disincentive to commission others to provide services that existed for RSLs (and other organisations who generate a VAT-exempt income) has been removed. The mechanics are complicated and doubtless lawyers and HMRC will have some good tussles over how schemes can and cannot be set up, but in essence, the 20% financial penalty of commissioning another RSL to provide me with a service should now be avoidable. Clearly, this opens up a range of possibilities.

Doing things collaboratively to achieve better quality outcomes. It's the age-old discussion about whether it's better to have a smaller service in-house, or to band together with others and create a bigger, supposedly higher quality, service. This debate has raged since before the days of outsourcing regarding whether it actually delivers better outcomes and there's still no real consensus - in some cases it does, in some it doesn't.

Doing things at a larger scale to become more efficient. Instead of using the value generated by collaborative endeavour to improve quality, it could be used to reduce costs. This is the classic “economies of scale” argument, much loved in the public sector at just the time when its weaknesses are starting to show in the corporate world. You will know I’m not generally a fan of “bigger is better”, but under a VAT share agreement on repairs for example, I wonder just how much might be saved.

Agglomerating activities to a scale where other added value outcomes can be considered. Take printing as an example. We all use external printers, but small individual commissions have neither the buying power nor the added value potential of a collective approach. If this was joined together to funded a collective print set up, could we use this new organisation to benefit other groups. One immediate application of this is the potential training possibilities - just think of the number of apprenticeships that could be offered in such a set up. How much easier might it be for something owned by us all, but branded as none of us, to secure contracts from other customers? This is one case where collaboration would definitely help the creation of social enterprises.

Of course, the real crux of whether VAT sharing can be made to work is on how efficiently and productively we can learn to work with other organisations. Providing there was a reciprocity here – each giving up some thing but also getting something back in return, some of the barriers might, just might, be overcome.

So what are those barriers? The primary issue will be a loss of control. Would I really want a vital service to be taken care of outside of the organisation? Would an external body, even one partly or wholly owned by Trafford Housing Trust, really be as sensitive to our organisation’s needs? Whichever way you look at it, sharing is more complex than staying independent. Add to that the issue that within an organisation there is likely to be significant resistance to change – so the disruption any sharing activities caused would need to be factored in.

Finally, it introduces a new governance overhead; the organisations providing these joint services would need to be separate to our existing ones (although if I’ve read the exemption correctly, they could be owned by one or more of us) and we all know how governance overheads tend to have their crises from time to time. So, as ever, there are pros and cons and it might end up that the incentive to experiment is not rewarded by the products that emerge. I’d very much like to investigate further though, so who fancies joining in some bold new thinking about VAT sharing?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Six Years And £5 Million Spent On Community Investment: What Have We Learned?

It's possibly too early in the year to be talking about reflections - especially as I only recently finished formulating my predictions - however, a recent HACT meeting about Community Investment led to a period of reflection on the fact that Trafford Housing Trust is now six years old. In that time we've spent £5 million on Community Investment and I thought it would be worthwhile bringing together what we've learned. As ever I'm really interested in your views and insights on the subject, so please feel free to leave a comment or reach me on Twitter.

Lesson One: Community Investment is “Mission Central” for THT

It's not that we are a landlord who does Community Investment as part of a CSR initiative, or just that it sounds like the sort of thing we should be doing. Community Investment directly gets us to where we aim to be. Our values state that we will be “at the heart of neighbourhoods which are safe and clean, where communities have a strong voice and where people choose to live.” I'm not saying we're perfect, our approach should (but still doesn’t) involve everyone on the staff and not just a small Community Investment team, but we strive to see that our budgets deliver community benefits as well as great levels of landlord service.

Lesson Two: Our Activity Is Structured At The Neighbourhood Level

We think it's vital that our Community Investment work is driven not by us, but by the customers and the communities in our neighbourhoods. Our approach has five steps:

1 - Having hard data about the strengths, weaknesses and needs of communities at the level of our neighbourhoods. For most neighbourhoods, we feel this information is still fragmented, or held exclusively in people’s heads, which often mean it has key elements that are missing.

2 - Having “soft” data about the same things. Listening to what customers and community leaders say, examining plans and actions of other stakeholders to maximise impact/avoid duplication, observing how things are actually used in the local area, learning from best practice elsewhere. This is about having well attuned “eyes and ears” and good local and national networks to inform them.

3 - Understanding that data. Our early experience was that we frequently jumped to conclusions about what the data told us and as a result we moved too quickly into solution mode. This step is crucial and one we are now bolstering by bringing in much stronger analytical skills. Intelligence, not just data, and causality are the prizes here.

A good example of this approach is education. How many times will we try to address poor educational attainment by improving schooling, when actually the problem is that at home there is neither a culture that values education, nor quiet space for students to study. This step is not without controversy; seasoned professionals view the rigour of a regression analysis at this stage as somehow questioning their finely honed “gut instinct”; missing the point that that is precisely the point!

4 - Selecting the outcomes/benefits we want to achieve and then the projects that will best achieve them. Note the order here; too often our drive has been to “do” something, rather than “achieve” something. We’ve learned from this and increasingly we look at the benefits we want to achieve and work backwards to the projects that are needed to deliver them. We seek to answer the “Why are we doing this?” question, before the “What are we going to do?” one. No more creating a nice project, just because it’s a trophy!

5 - And finally, the old challenge of how we measure impact and value for money. Here’s where a national framework would be invaluable, but we don’t underestimate the difficulties of producing something meaningful. We would ideally be looking for something that enables us to know that:

i.    The distribution of resources and benefits is fair in relation to need and opportunity
ii.   Absolute cost/benefit assessments (CBA) can be made on individual projects to support “go/no go” decisions
iii.   Comparative CBA can be made to select preferential projects from the universe of possible ones
iv.   Retrospective CBA can be carried out to compare expected outcomes from a project with those actually delivered
v.   Whole organisation assessments of “value added” can be made on an annual basis

Problems Still To Address

Although these steps represent the methodology that we are using, we are the first to accept that it is far from perfect! We still have a list of problems that we need to solve.

a)    The information is collected in many and varied ways, at different times and when data from other organisations is also examined, different meanings of the same word can lead the unwary into bear traps of inconsistency.

b)    Understanding of data is not a science, but an art – and in some cases the political lens through which that data is viewed will be a more important driver of understanding than and statistical technique.

c)    Even with the best understanding available, at best we are left with a “fuzzy” picture of what's best to do. As a result somebody, somewhere, still needs to make a decision, stick their neck out, do something and be accountable for the outcome. Mistakes are inevitable; Boards must treat these as opportunities to learn, not reasons to punish.

d)    There are real pressures to do what everyone else is doing – even if the circumstances aren’t the same. The herd mentality of following your neighbour is still a driver of too many project decisions.

e)    A focus on needs and community opinions can hamper innovation. Steve Jobs didn’t use focus groups to design products that people said they wanted, he used creative innovation to design products that people didn’t yet know they wanted. Maybe that is why so much Community Investment we see is a recycling of old ideas.

f)    Many of our Community Investment activities are selected by community groups themselves. The scale of their thinking is often small, when a bigger project would give proportionately more impact, and their time horizons are short, further reinforcing the “quick and dirty” approach to creating value.

I'd be interested in your own approaches and thoughts on this issue. It seems like Community Investment is one of those topics that could best be attacked with a crowd-sourced approach, allowing us to pool our differing opinions and learn from the mistakes and successes of others.