Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Is A Housing Benefit Rebate A New Solution?

A straight-to-the-point post today where I would like to put forward an idea and have you shoot it down. Tell me here or on Twitter any of the reasons why you think this would never work. Like the earworm song that you hear just as you leave the house and it crawls around your head all day, this is an idea that I first wrote about back in March but has since refused to leave my mind. Therefore I think the sanest thing all round would be to see if you can shoot it down and if not, see what we should do about it.

So what is it? It’s quite a simple thought but potentially if it worked then it could have a far-reaching impact on social housing. We all know the Government really wants to cut the benefit bill – so I've been thinking about a completely new model of funding housing associations that would help them achieve that. I think we all accept we are now in a competitive and a payment-by-results world. But, in my model the capital grant needed to build a new home isn't what you compete on. The money for building the house comes from the government, but what we would compete on is the level of a rebate of the housing benefit – and this rebate would be paid back to the government.

In practice we would say to the government, “You give us £X to build new houses and we'll add our own money to it. For this we will promise to rebate you Y% of the housing benefit we would have otherwise have received from you, for the next five years.” It’s attractive to the government because they get a much-needed reduction in their housing benefit bill, but an added benefit to both housing association, tenant and the government is that the way we would lay off our risk is to focus on getting people into work. Because if we got a tenant into work then they would still pay the rent, but the amount that they claim through housing benefit reduces and we save money on the rebate.

It strikes me that this model has the makings of a truly fair system where the housing association is encouraged to use its power in the community to build something beyond the bricks and mortar of the houses. If all of us looked to think strategically and create jobs, and get recognised for that, we know that we could do more.

So tell me – why wouldn’t it work?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Giving Something Back - A Housing Association Challenge

Trafford Housing Trust is just one of over 40 housing associations that were in this year's list in the Sunday times of the Top 100 Best not-for-profit organisations to work for.  For us it was the third successive year that we'd made that list and I know from reading the comments from our own staff that were the key part of the assessment that they really value the terms and condition and ways of working that we have established.

A ginnel clearing masterclass
One of the aspects of work that staff are invited to comment on relates to the extent that their organisation "gives something back" to the community. Of course, the questionnaire is used to assess all sorts of organisations, and for many private sector organisations, the thought of giving something back doesn't enter their business model. For housing associations it could be argued that we are all about building stronger, more supportive, more resilient communities and perhaps the fact that so many housing associations feature in the Sunday Times list is a reflection of this. But in our case, our scores from staff on this "giving something back" dimension were relatively low and in trying to understand why that should be the case, we discovered it was because this community-based work was so much ingrained into the DNA of our organisation, people just didn't realise they were doing it.

So we've set up what we confidently expect to be an annual event, to engage all (we slimmed the service down to the bare minimum for the day so everyone could take part) of our staff team on the same day in activities that are designed to show just how we do give something back. I've blogged in the past about "The Big Day In..." which was our first attempt at this but this year, we did it through the medium of Business in the Community's "Give and Gain" day, and I hope my Twitter followers found at least some of the pictures of what we did at least mildly entertaining.

Staff went into schools for a morning, showed would-be silver surfers in sheltered schemes how to use technology, they baked with and gardened for tenants, cleared grotspots and over-grown ginnels, organised and ran a farmers market, painted (and pointed), planted - the list goes on and on. My contribution, aside from some rather limited painting and ginnel-clearing, was to hold an opening ceremony for a new community building in Lostock. The Leathwaite Centre was named after one of our Board members who died in 2010. Steve Leathwaite was a pillar of his community - he gave back big time, and it was an honour to mark his dedication and service.

On that day, we were one of over 200 organisations across the country, contributing over 10,000 people to community based activities - you can find the full details here and if you are looking for our project on the map, it seems as if BiTC have relocated us to Central Manchester rather than Trafford, so I guess they know about our growth ambitions...and of course some (but not very many) of those were housing associations.

So here's my suggestion - next year, what would it be like if housing associations across the country all gave something back to their communities on the same day? Whether we do it as part of the BiTC event, or whether as a sector we could co-ordinate our own, I don't know. But an annual day when we engage our staff in a different way, have a visible presence in our communities and honour our volunteers couldn't be a bad thing - could it?

EDIT - for a full slideshow of our Give and Gain see the slideshow:

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Golden Rule Of Customer Service

Last week our Customer Hub team won the "Best customer service" accolade in the Housing Excellence Awards 2012. It's some achievement and I salute that team for their fantastic successes in such a short time. The next morning I heard an item on President Obama's decision to support gay marriage. It wasn't the issue that caught my attention, rather the voice of a commentator saying that this decision by Obama represented the so called "Golden Rule". The supreme edict was to treat others as you would want to be treated and how important that rule was.

And now the bit that links these two bits of news.

On the face of it, the Golden Rule might be thought of as the epitome of good service. But it misses the mark. I'm left-handed (I think I might have mentioned that before in this blog) and all I can say is that the world was designed by and for right-handed people.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but take filling in the stub of the the humble (and now virtually defunct) cheque book. Easy as you like for the right-handers but something to make a left-hander all fingers and thumbs.
The Golden Rule - "do as you would be done by" - worked for the right-handed cheque book designer, not the minority of left-handed users.

So when it comes to delivering great service you need to go beyond the Golden Rule and have systems that understand and prioritises the way the customer wants to be treated. That means treating each customer as an individual, using listening skills to diagnose the real issue behind their call, taking as much time as it takes to complete the call and being able to marshal the whole of the organisation's resources to be able to deliver the answer the customer needs.

And that's how our Customer Hub was set up. We have no measures of the number of calls handled by each operator, or the average length of time each call takes - we don't think our customers are interested in those. What we measure is whether we resolve the customer's issue "first time" - that means by the person who picks up the call in the first place.

We don't have any of the "Press 1 for this" and "Press 2 for that". There is no "you are number five in the queue, please hold because your call is important to us" - because again, we asked what customers wanted and they certainly didn't want that! As an aside, our staff didn't want to work in a system like that either, fearing de-skilling, hectoring management and not being able to go to the toilet when they needed! They've supported our alternative approach, so much so that turnover within the team over its first two years has been virtually non-existent.

Our approach gets us recognised in awards like last week's. But that's not the point. We do it for our customers and as they consistently tell us it works for them and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Election Night Report

I was fortunate enough last week to go to my first ever election count. It was something that I’d wanted to do for a long time and having been I’d say it was something that everyone should try and do if they get the chance. The opportunity to witness democracy in action was inspiring. It was fascinating to see the shifts of power that occur in these large, featureless rooms as each vote is dutifully processed with the highest standards of care.
Democracy in action. 

As you would expect I was there in a strictly non-partisan way, which meant that I could enjoy it more than all of those there with a vested interest and I could also take a wider view of the process. This took in the massive organisation and systems support that was required, but also the political goings-on amongst the councillors, candidates and the throngs of supporters. That it all went so smoothly was a testament to the hard work of the count organisers and in other more meaningful ways to the experience that we’ve had at implementing democracy in this country. 

As the night went on it was fun to see the hawk-like watchfulness of the politicos who were studying every vote that was counted. At points different tables would explode into excitement as the closest counts went to a recount. This was where the effort and strategy that had gone into a particularly well-fought campaign paid off and a seat would either change hands, or an incumbent would be relieved to see the votes just come out in their favour. The narrowest margin of the night was just 19 votes – tense and gripping stuff that gives the lie to those who say that they can’t be bothered to vote because what difference would it make...

The overall result was clear enough: Conservatives lost three seats to Labour - fewer than they might have feared and it left them with enough seats to keep them in power for the next two years as there are no local elections in Trafford next year. Against the national trend the tertiary parties made little impact. The Liberal Democrats kept the seat they were contesting, the Greens and UKIP both took a percentage of votes - most likely from Labour and Conservatives respectively.

The night was a good chance for me to catch up with many THT ex-Board members - by my own count 11 of the current Councillors have served on our Board - and as many again are essential to the smooth running of our community panels. It was good to pick up on their current issues - and to learn from most that they thought we were providing a great service. I was only passed three pieces of constituent business in more than four hours of discussion, which hopefully shows that we’re responding well to the problems that do come in and providing an ever-widening array of means for people to deal directly with us.

So now the votes are counted and the results declared, what might I hope for from the new-look Council? Here’s my top three wishes:

1. Translation of the core strategy and its ambitious housing growth plans into deliverable action in the key areas that the strategy identifies. All types of housing are needed and many providers will be involved, but hopefully there will be recognition of our new-found financial capacity to supply and our track record of delivery of new homes.

2. Recognition that we can do more. Whether it’s improving the lives of those in need of care and support, or providing work-based opportunities for prolific and persistent offenders to turn their lives around, we have the talent and ambition to help create thriving neighbourhoods.

3. An open-mindedness and a willingness to engage on innovative models of public service delivery. I’ve posted many times about this and it would be fantastic to think that the Council were one of the forward-thinking organisations who could see that the times they are a’changing, whether or not we acknowledge it.

In conclusion a fantastic night and an impressive feat of organisation. And for those Councillors whose responsibility it is to see that they represent Trafford in the best way possible the hard work, alongside partners like THT, can now begin. Good luck to them all. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A Solution To The Four Threats To Public Service Reform

In last week’s post I outlined what I consider to be the four biggest threats to public sector reform. These are what I see as the major sticking points that will hold back the whole (laudable) notion of returning power to communities unless they are addressed. I asked for your thoughts and suggestions and received a muted response. What follows then are my working thoughts on how to solve or bypass some of these issues. Let me know if you agree, or disagree and if you have other ways to push public sector reform on.   

Problem # 1 – “The culture of commissioners who hide behind procurement "rules" and strip out cost at the expense of long-term value.”

There are two elements behind this problem. Firstly, in a public service commissioner’s mind, cost is king - not surprising with all this talk of austerity. I’m not suggesting that we throw caution to the wind and embrace profligacy, but there’s a huge difference between only measuring what you spend and measuring what you spend it on. The second element is that at a time when innovation and flexible thinking are so desperately needed, the pressures on job security are promoting a conservatism that is working against Conservative ambitions.

It’s obvious that we need to promote change. Now we've got Chris White's Public Service Act on the Statute book - lets get it into operation quickly. As he explained in Ethos

“…we need to consider more than just finances when delivering public services. Public services can generate considerable social, economic and environmental benefits for their communities. In order to get the most from our public services, therefore, we need to ensure that we design contracts that take these things into account and build them into delivery.

Precisely. And then we need to build on that start: perhaps by asking public service organisations to publish details of the value they create, not just (or even at all) of the money which they spend.

Once this is moving we can create momentum by removing the constrictions from commissioners. If they are asked to weigh cost then that’s exactly what they’ll do. We must ask them to include value and innovation. The key is to embed economic, social and environmental value in the contracts that are created.

A great example of this would be to look at the next round of HCA contracts for new affordable homes and ask what commitment they will require in terms of the added economic value not just from the site itself but right through the supply chain. Apprenticeships, local jobs, environmental value, energy saving, social value of community-led regeneration – all of these metrics could be embedded to give us progress that brings real change. Of course – the organisations themselves could apply these same metrics and lead the change by refusing to bid for contracts where such considerations were not the determining factor.

Problem #2 – “The vested interests of the current cohort of providers whose business models are profoundly threatened by such a change.”

If there’s one thing that the recent banking crisis has shown us it’s the arrogance that security brings. The titanic feeling of superiority that our business models are unsinkable, simply because we can’t conceive of their failure. As we have seen though we live in interesting times, times when headlines such as “developing landlords face extinction” are published and read, but perhaps not truly understood by our sector.

I’m not sure that this particular barrier to public sector reform is one that we have to do much about per se. The changes will come regardless of whether people accept it or not. The fact is that freed from the choke chains of regulation the bigger dogs are already unleashed and it’s only a matter of time before the casualties begin. This aspect of the industry is perhaps the most unsettling, because a failure to change means that people are either not looking at what’s happening, or they incapable of acknowledging the reality. I don’t think either conclusion reflects well.

Problem #3 – “The short-termist goals pursued by the profit-driven, private sector organisations who are the new default delivery model. Does the claimed efficiency that they bring really make the profits they take out a fair exchange for the public purse?”

As CEO of one of the organisations that would stereotypically be characterised as a do-gooder not-for-profits I feel obliged to take umbrage at the assumption that all private sector companies are sleek, lean and on-the-ball. As one politician was overheard to say “[a not-for-profit company] will never get a contract from us for that...” whilst rewarding some incredibly poor private companies with contracts. This is lazy thinking that hasn’t been updated since the late 1970s. To my way of thinking there are good companies and there are poor ones, the model of governance doesn’t come into it. We should stop assuming that favouring private or public companies is going to provide us with an answer and learn to separate the good from the bad.

Equally, if we are to create a level playing field between the different types of organisation then we need to have an equitable view on profits. How is it that a 15% profit for the private sector (distributed to shareholders for uncertain and unquantifiable social return) is seen as acceptable, while a 15% margin in the not-for-profit-sector (retained in the business 100% for future re-investment for further social return) is not?

A cautionary word too on short-termism. I’ve watched with interest the changes in how repairs are done in our sector. When I started in housing 30 years ago, small, local owner-run contractors did repairs for housing associations. They knew the patch, they knew the properties, they knew many of the tenants and most importantly, they knew that their future was inextricably linked to that of the landlord employing them. Under increasing cost pressures from regulators, big drove out small in the contractor world. Then we had the very big driving out the big, with expansion driven by shareholder capital and the short term demands it makes. And now the wheel comes full circle as landlords seek to exit from these mass contracts as quality just isn't there any more. It would be nice to think that we could learn from history.

Problem #4 – “The asymmetry of information - with the public being handed the purchasing power, but told nothing (other than perhaps the most rudimentary cost data) to enable them to assess the value of alternative choices. How do we make those choices more informed?”

If, as I suspect, we are moving into an era where public services become market driven we need to recognise that markets only operate well when there is good quality information about the elements of that market, that is widely available on a timely basis. So for a public service market to operate effectively, we would need:
                 1.    The research and analysis skills that underpin other markets to turn their attention to ours. We would need the lens they used to be one that examines long-term value creation not short-term financial strength. Beyond that the skills and techniques they use would be largely similar.
               2.     Wide and rapid dissemination of the research findings through a strong and reliable linkage between the research analysts and those with the purchasing power – whether that is the purchasing public, or commissioners mediating on their behalf – so that the research really does influence purchasing decisions, rather than sit on a shelf somewhere.
              3.     Most of all – an issue I, and others, have repeatedly highlighted - we need an agreed method of calculating social return, so that the relative benefits of types of social value can properly be compared.

I’ve been wondering about the potential meaning behind the limited (well, non-existent actually) response to my challenge to provide your thoughts and answers to these issues last week. I know some people out there read it and I guess many of those readers really care about this topic. It can't surely be much of a strategy to deal with what is surely coming to watch and wait and hope it won't do too much damage. Is it in the "too hard" pile? Or as a housing sector, do we think these things don't really matter to us?