Views from the top: Digital transformation in the housing sector

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8 months ago by Jessica Brown

Views from the top: Digital transformation in the housing sector

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My name is Austin, I manage the Social Housing Finance team at Goodman Masson. As part of our commitment to developing careers we will be talking with industry experts who have reached the top in social housing and want to give something back.

The social housing sector is evolving and to understand what this means this week I met with James Caspell to discuss - amongst other things - digital transformation.

James Caspell is currently the Head of Income, Home Ownership and Business Improvement at Sutton Housing Partnership, and a Board Member of the Chartered Institute of Housing. Throughout the last 10 years James has specialised in delivering resident-led service improvements and improving commercial performance, whilst enhancing customer experience for different community groups.

James is a strong advocate of digital transformation, and having worked on the front line with tenants, he has a unique view of what can and what needs to change, in order to benefit users of social housing.

Below we talk technology and inequality, within the housing sector

How did you end up in social housing?

Having secured a temporary role as a Housing Advisor when I was 18, I very quickly learnt how important social housing provision is and that it should be viewed as a public good - like education or health. It is too important a service to be left to the market.

Why is social housing so important to you?

During my time working in Tower Hamlets I engaged with a number of community groups who had not been listened to by local public service providers and were experiencing significant inequality in terms of overcrowding and rent debts.. These experiences have given me a deep understanding of how social housing works and doesn't work, and how housing providers can be viewed by different community groups where residents aren't engaged.

Although absolute poverty remains rare in the UK, many people do experience relative poverty, meaning the housing crisis has had a heavy impact on their health, education and ability to hold down jobs. 130,000 children are currently living in temporary accommodation, for example.

What can be done to improve the service social housing offers?

I have seen first-hand the impact that better processes have on customers of social housing. By reducing inefficiencies and mapping the customer journey we can reduce wasted time and money, which can be reinvested in front line services ensuring face to face provision for those who need it and digital access for those that don't.

The idea of using commercial approaches is still viewed negatively in much of the†sector, and in the context of austerity this is entirely understandable. For me making a process more efficient doesn't mean that you need to cut the cost in overall provision of service, in fact it is quite the opposite and it is possible to identify savings to be reinvested elsewhere in front-line services. You only have to look at the positive results that Lean process improvements have had on Japanese companies, who have adopted and used these methods. It's no coincidence that the NHS and TfL, amongst others, are adopting similar approaches to reducing inefficiencies. to reinvest in their front line services. In housing there is the opportunity to deliver a lot of very quick wins that the customer can see the benefit from straight away. This means services are delivered more quickly, more smoothly and with a better end-product, whether itís a repair or something more complex like addressing ASB.

What do you feel will drive this change?

I believe digital transformation will bring about the seismic changes in the housing sector, driven primarily to deliver cost savings but the benefits for those living in social housing could be extraordinary

It means someone can pay their rent or raise a repair when it suits them, rather than when it suits the housing provider. It means web chat and artificial intelligence can address broader access, whilst automatic translation tools and screen readers ensure services are more accessible to all community groups.

Why is change needed?

If you look at the threat to guaranteed income that Universal Credit brings to housing providers, they've gone from getting a very large chunk of their money from the DWP, in the form of Housing Benefit, and now they are having to have individual conversations with thousands of customers, with no real integration between housing providers and DWP.

This means that you now have to work an awful lot harder to collect the rental incomethat safeguards tenancies, increasing the transaction costs, which in many ways is a move towards a more analogue approach rather than a digital approach. This approach is financially unsustainable if Universal Credit is going to continue to be rolled out.

What benefit will digital transformation offer?

I think the solution will be for housing providers to look at their transactions as a whole, and to identify the number of transactions or service requests that are very simple and could be delivered through self-service; for example checking rent balances or reporting a repair. Most of the sector is still a long way from producing a mobile friendly website, but if they had one with a secure online portal, their customers could access these types of service 24 hours a day, which could really bring down the average transaction costs and protect front-line services.

What we have done at Sutton Housing Partnership is work with residents to produce a new user-friendly website and portal and in 9 months we have moved our total proportion of self-service transactions up from 9 per cent to 42 per cent. Other sectors are already using this technology, for example doctors surgeries use automated prescription requests sent directly to pharmacies now which saves journeys and time for millions of people. In housing we still, as a sector, have a lot to do to yield the benefits of digital transformation and thatís just to take advantage of the technology that has been available for years, let alone being at the forefront of public service provision.

What further changes do you foresee in the future?

In the future artificial intelligence (AI) will become heavily used within the sector, as well as Internet of Things. In terms of AI, FinTech has had some great success with social networking platforms such as Facebook messenger and Transport for London (TfL) also utilise it well with their own chat bot. TfL customers can plan travel routes and find travel times all on their phone using their location data without having to find a member of staff, yet to the customer it feels like you are getting a personalised experience.

"There's no reason why housing providers could not use this technology for small transactions like straight-forward repair requests, rent related questions or housing regulations. In local authorities, why couldn't all councils look to cut costs by using one payment portal for paying rent across all providers? Greater digital harmonisation across the housing sector would benefit everybody.

If housing associations and local authorities make these changes what can they expect?

The ability to offer more services digitally would reduce costs across the board whilst also improving overall customer experience. If you make a digital channel easy to use consumers will use it the same way they are currently doing so in retail. Customers are now happy to buy their clothes online, however through adaptation, many high street shops have also managed to keep trading and remain relevant.

In housing the customers that need the face to face support should always be able to get it and the savings that you release from getting the majority of customers to solve small problems through self-service would actually allow housing associations and local authorities to better help those in need, like disabled or older residents.

I also believe that expensive static offices will just be seen as overheads in the next 10 years and I donít think they will be used in the same way, with shared collaborative workspaces being the norm.

What will this mean for someone looking to move into the sector?

For people who want to move into the sector I feel there will be more recognition for those who are digitally savvy, and have the energy and ideas currently seen in start-ups.

The more digitally literate you are, the more attractive to the housing sector you will become, I also feel that the housing sector will do more to attract these types of candidates in the future and embrace agile and flexible working. A lot of housing management is about interactions rather than being desk-bound and there are many ways to interact with colleagues and customers

Why are you so convinced that this is change that will happen?

In today's society we all use services such as Deliveroo or Uber. Consumers no longer want to simply order a pizza or taxi through the touch of a button, they want to track it with notifications and to be kept up to date on its progress.

Social housing residents are no different, in having increased expectations, they are consumers of these apps and at some stage they will have the same demands from their housing providers.