On the fringe

Like many other housing professionals, I was at the CIH conference in Manchester this week and for the first time, I was not only a delegate, but a speaker at one of the Treehouse fringe sessions.

I enjoy attending the conference and its always nice to bump into people you haven’t seen for a while and have a catch up in person. However, I do often leave with the feeling that the sessions could get down to the nitty gritty of delivering some of the issues being debated, like how do we get involved with things like the devolution and health agenda when we’re not really welcome at the table? Or how do we tackle the crisis in the counties and shires where the large scale projects that are going on in Manchester and London could never work in a neglected market town?

But I do always leave feeling inspired that despite the huge, complicated and overwhelming challenge that is solving the housing crisis, there is so much opportunity out there and so many examples of people doing some truly innovative things to get people the housing they need. And it makes me excited to be a part of this profession and want to get even more involved. In the not too distant future I’d like to move into a role where I can really do my bit to influence the local policy agenda, to influence the strategic direction of a housing organisation and to design, develop and deliver the policies and projects we need.

If you’re interested in the session I presented at, it was titled the Future of Communication and alongside Boris Worrall and Stuart Macdonald, I gave my thoughts on what comms could look like in the future and then heard pitches Dragons Den style from three Delegates of the Future / GEM students. We heard great ideas including taking comms to where people are in their neighbourhoods, equipping staff with tablets and Omni-channel comms. Boris and Stuart also gave some insightful remarks on getting the staff culture right to enable great comms and how we are perceived by external stakeholders such as the Government and how this should influence our comms with them. My comments focused on the messaging and language that we use and here are the notes from my presentation:

A lot has been said in the last couple of days about the challenges facing the sector, often to quite fundamental aspects of the work we are doing each day in our communities. But as Terrie said on Tuesday this isn’t new, and as we all know change is constant and we’ve certainly been facing a lot of it for a number of years. And the result of all these challenges is that the work we do and the way we approach it has changed and I think we’re increasingly moving away from a paternalistic approach to one of co-production, to delivering services in collaboration with our customers, not just to them.

So for me the way we communicate in the future needs to reflect this and that means having a conversation, tailoring, making it personal,

People don’t build relationships with organisations, they build them with other people. And for all the focus on big data and technology, I don’t think we’ve developed anything that can replace a knowledgeable, empathetic, friendly, front line officer. Yes we can equip them with the technology and data to help them work smarter and deliver an improved service to customers, but people value dealing with a person, and they really value dealing with the same person each time. So combine an officer powered by data and tech and you’ve got some very personal and tailored comms.

On the idea of conversation, a two communication channel, and actually a two way relationship, we can see this in action in the sector already through things like customer deals or contracts, think Bromford or Yarlington and my own organisation has one in the pipeline. Here the focus isn’t here’s what we will do for you, a one size fits all approach, take it or leave it, but here’s what we each put into this relationship so that it’s mutually beneficial.

I think some in the sector are already on this path of personal, tailored, two way conversation, if you think about social media use, the tone used is very different to what you would see in a newsletter or report for example, people can respond immediately and get a personal response very quickly. and you can also see examples of it in new approaches to tenant involvement, as highlighted by the report Family Mosaic issued last week. But I think the future of comms is that this goes much further, especially given the changing needs and expectations of younger generations such as those about to pitch to us who are used to communicating with lots of other organisations in these ways already. Their communication expectations are being set by other companies from a wide array of sectors and we need to keep up with this. We heard from Google on Tues who talked us through how Google products understand and predict your needs, providing you with the info you need at your fingertips as you need it, not only is this tailored it, it’s proactive. So as well as being tailored, personal and two way, but maybe the future of comms could also be proactive, getting the info to people as they need it before they have to ask for it?

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All things social

I was reminded this week of the first ever CIH Rising Stars competition and the question posed to the entrants; it was all about the word social and how it can be perceived positively or negatively depending on the context, ie. positive if it’s about social networking, but negative if it’s about social housing. My reminder of this came in a conversation with a colleague about the loss of social values in social housing by some individuals and organisations that are blinded by the promises of a fully commercialised sector.

The phrase commercial head and social heart is thrown around quite a lot but I think it’s a really important principle we must all operate under, whether you work in the not for profit world, public, private or third sector. Given all the challenges of the new Conservative majority government, it worries me that some may consider the social purpose of the housing world to be too negative, too difficult, too risky or too low reward financially to continue bothering with. As has been said many times before, if social housing doesn’t offer a home to those on low incomes, with support needs or in crisis, who will? And if the popularity of Benefit Street and other such programmes is anything to go by, there isn’t much public support out there for our cause.

I know there are thousands of dedicated housing professionals who work tirelessly every single day, sometimes with little thanks or reward other than knowing they have done their bit to tackle the housing crisis where they are. I hope that those on a commercial journey recognise this and their social roots and stay true to them. Some of my work involves managing a small number of homes for market rent, let to households you wouldn’t generally find on a waiting list. So you might ask how does this fit with values of social housing? There’s the usual cross subsidy argument, but also, whilst these households might not be in a crisis or excluded from the market because of their low income or support needs, their needs are not met by the market because what’s on offer is too costly, poor quality,  insecure or badly managed. Their’s is a different type of housing need but nonetheless one that can and should be met by social housing organisations as part of our mission to ensure everyone has a decent and affordable place to call home. But we should not prioritise one type of housing need over another, but tackle as much of each as we can.

I’ve blogged before on this topic of losing our social hearts and it seems that this won’t be the last, I guess all any of us can do is to fight for our cause in any way we can. Mine will be to always operate with a social heart no matter what and I expect my next challenge in this respect will be ensuring our market rent project indirectly benefits those on the waiting list/current social tenants and that we don’t succumb to replicating the practices of the market (such as insecurity and unfair fees) to squeeze out maximum profits but embed our social values alongside our commercial approach.

You may recall that I made the final three of the CIH Rising Stars competiton last year, but you may not know this was actually the second time I had entered the competition. At the start of this post I mentioned the topic of the very first Rising Stars competition; here is my entry from 2011:

How do we tackle the problem that the word ‘social’ is good when followed by ‘networking’ and bad when followed by ‘housing’?

Is it to be expected that the word ‘social’ has positive connotations when followed by ‘networking’ and negative when followed by ‘housing’ given the different concepts that each represents?
Whilst social networking represents a fundamental and forward-thinking change to the way our society communicates and interacts, social housing evokes images of deprivation, exclusion and residualisation.
Whilst social networking is social because it is about people, and about bringing people and information together to one place to interact in their own way; social housing is social because it was created in response to a problem recognised by society (although it’s now considered as much a part of the problem as the solution). And therein lays the source of the positive and negative feelings associated with each term.
But that is not to say that social housing is not also about people; in the same way that the people using social networking make it what it is, the people living in social housing make it what it is. So given that both are about people, I believe that their work must go hand in hand and that they must each learn from the successes of the other for the benefit of the communities they serve.
Social housing providers must recognise and apply to their own work the principles that make social networking so successful. That is, bringing diverse people and information together and empowering them to discuss and tackle the issues that are important to them. Be that through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and hyperlocal blogs, or by facilitating community groups.
In this way social housing providers can harness the power of social networking and enable communities to tackle the negative perceptions that surround the sector. And in a world where currently the result of media-influenced perceptions becoming reality is that people suffer impoverished lives, it is vitally important that action is taken.
You might think that challenging something as deeply entrenched as the negative perceptions that surround social housing may be beyond the capabilities of a platform where users can only express themselves in 140 characters or less; but the power of social networking should not be underestimated. Earlier this year, it made a significant contribution to the Egyptian revolution and the ending of three decades of violent oppression. How? Revolutionaries used it to transmit their messages to the world and to stimulate international support for their cause.
With this in mind, I believe that social networking can and must be used to empower people to tackle important issues and to challenge the negative perceptions that surround the sector. Ultimately, it must be used to ensure that the word ‘social’ is good when followed by ‘networking’ and ‘housing’.