Valuing professionalism in housing

This week I had the pleasure of presenting at the Housing Studies Association conference for the second time. One of the key conference themes this year was professionalism and as this is something I spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about due to my CIH East Midlands role, I was encouraged to do a little research on the subject.

This blog post outlines the findings of this research.

Summary

It is debated whether housing meets the academic definition of a profession (as it lacks a clear technical knowledge base) and it is suggested that professionalism in housing is more about acting professionally with an individualised, rather than collective, profession.

The research demonstrated support for professionalism but questioned the value of membership of a professional body. However, the important role of a having a body to raise standards across the sector came across very strongly.

It is suggested that professionalism going forward will focus on customer-focused self-development within an organisational culture, rather than acquiring technical knowledge through a national institution.

I think for many housing roles there is a very clearly defined body of technical knowledge which applies (homelessness, lettings, housing management, development, asset management) and given the issues many of our customers/tenants/residents (delete as applicable) face, it is incredibly important that the staff working with them have the appropriate knowledge and skills.

In my view, an important question is if the sector is acting sufficiently professional and how might be measure this? And how might we ensure an appropriate level of professionalism across the sector?

I am encouraged that the research recognised the importance of a body to raise standards, but discouraged by the suggestion that professional development will be down to individuals and organisations in the future. Whilst many focus on attitude and potential in recruitment, asking someone who previously worked in retail to deal with a self neglect case without a proper understanding of all the relevant legislation and good practice raises ethical questions (just ask @EmmaLeggot). There are also issues of consistency and robustness in this individual, on the job training.

There is much more thinking needed on this subject but my initial thoughts are that certain roles in housing should require the completion of certain training that is set at a national level and compliance with a code of practice. We are starting to see this in other parts of the property sector and although this is for different reasons, given the importance of the work we do in housing, shouldn’t we aim to have the highest possible standards in our work?

Abstract

This research will consider the definition of professionalism, how this has changed over time and what it means to be a housing professional. Membership of the professional body for housing, the Chartered Institute of Housing, has declined year on year and yet work in the sector today is increasingly complex and those working in housing are required to exercise significant expertise, autonomy and discretion in their roles with vulnerable individuals. Following the Grenfell tragedy and the focus on improving standards in the growing private rented sector, the skills, qualifications and regulation of the people working in these industries are being questioned. This suggests professionalism has lost its value for employers and consumers of these services and primary research will be conducted amongst housing professionals to understand the reasons for this and identify potential solutions. Finally, the future of professionalism and the role of professional bodies will be considered and recommendations on how to ensure employers and consumers value professionalism will be made.

Defining professionalism

The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists Alberta‘s briefing on concepts of professionalism explains the early use of “professional” meant a commitment to a certain way of life. The verb “profess” meant to be received formally into a religious community such as a monk who takes monastic vows in a religious order. It implied a public avowal to follow a path of high moral ideals. By the late seventeenth century, the word became more secular in meaning and expanded beyond religion. “Professional” included those who were qualified to pursue a vocation or calling. Law, medicine, and engineering became professions because they required professed knowledge, shared values and wisdom, and a fiduciary relationship with others.

A more contemporary and comprehensive definition of professional is: “A calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive preparation including instruction in skills and methods as well as in the scientific, historical, or scholarly principles underlying such skills and methods, maintaining high standards of achievement and conduct, and committing its members to continued study and to a kind of work that provides public service. The practice of a profession requires the exercise of reasoned judgement in the application of this knowledge. Professionals are frequently required to make judgements based on knowledge and understanding of a situation. Often, there are a variety of factors and several acceptable solutions when solving problems. Decision-makers must be able to identify and evaluate possible alternatives, considering that many persons can be significantly affected by the ultimate decisions taken.

The housing profession?

Several studies have suggested that housing does not share some of the essential features of housing professions, particularly a clear technical knowledge base. It is argued that housing management is generalist in nature and comprises a range of relatively low-level skills that straddle different services and which has altered in role and scope with successive governments, meaning that housing is not clearly distinguished from other types of related activity, therefore making it difficult to assess whether or not housing is a profession (Franklin and Clapham (1997), Furbey et al. (2001), Laffin (1986), Kemp and Williams (1991), Thornhill (2004)).

So instead it has been argued that being a professional in housing is not dependent on the ownership and application of knowledge that is unavailable to others, but is more about acting ethically (objectively, consistently and fairly), in accordance with best practice, and with a commitment to providing a good service (Clapham et al., 2000).

This is supported by Casey & Allen (2004) who argue that an individualized (as opposed to collective) ‘professional project of the self’ is emerging in housing management that has not yet been adequately captured in the sociological literature.

So is it more accurate to say that housing workers behave in a ‘professional’ way? And does it even matter?

Primary research

Primary research was conducted to validate a number of the arguments made in the secondary research. A survey made up of mainly qualitative questions was created online and circulated via social media. The survey was completed by 59 individuals, including housing officers, mangers, directors, CEO, board members, consultants, tenants from housing associations, local authorities, ALMOs, trade bodies.

Question 1 asked respondents to select the defining features of a professional

The highest rated features were:

  • Continuously learning (73%)
  • Ethical (68%)
  • Experienced (65%)
  • Trustworthy (63%)
  • Respected (63%)

The lowest rated features were:

  • Elitist (0%)
  • Exclusive (0%)
  • Autonomous (3.5%)
  • Has a status (17%)
  • Use their discretion (24%)

Around half felt that a professional needed to be a member of a professional body (52.5%) or have qualifications at a higher level (47.5%). 32% felt a professional required a license to practice.

Question 2 asked what respondents considered is the role of a professional body such as CIH. The responses were categorised as follows:

Education and training 44%
Good practice and research 27%
Influencing and leading 46%
Latest news 3%
Member support/personal development 32%
Networking 7%
Public benefit 2%
Recognise qualification 2%
Set and enforce standards 51%

Around half of respondents said education and training, influencing and leading, set and enforce standards.

 

Question 3 asked if respondents are a member of a professional body such as CIH.

  • 27% answered no
  • 73% answered yes
  • 68% stated they are a member of the CIH

 

Question 4 asked respondents if they feel CIH is relevant to their role.

  • 13.5% answered no
  • 12% answered partially
  • 73% answered yes

Those answering no or partially commented that there was no content relevant to their role and there was no detriment from not being a member.

Those answering yes commented that CIH is relevant due to the education and training (23%) offered, provision of latest news (21%), networking opportunities (21%) and CIH’s work in influencing and leading (16%).

 

Question 5 asked respondents if they consider themselves to be a housing professional

  • 13.5% answered no
  • 5% answered partially
  • 80% answered yes

Those answering no commented that either they needed more experience or qualification or that their experience and/or qualifications to date weren’t sufficient. Others commented that they didn’t work (in paid employment) in the industry or specifically housing management

Those answering yes commented that they considered themselves to be a housing professional due to their qualification (32%), their specialist knowledge and experience (30%), their long service in the sector (30%), their CIH membership (21%), their professional behaviour (21%) and their commitment to their personal development (19%).

 

Question 6 asked what respondents considered to be the benefit of a professional workforce for employers and/or customers

  • 71% said that it raises standards
  • 17% said it means the workforce is qualified
  • 15% said it means employees are committed to CPD
  • 13.5% said it means employees are knowledgeable

Respondents also mentioned accountability, seeing the bigger picture, consistency, externally recognised and being part of a network.

 

Question 7 asked respondents if all occupations should be professional. 51% of respondents answered no. Respondents commented that this is only required for occupations that require a certain level or body of knowledge or standard practice, or where the role has consequences to the lives of others or society.

27% of respondents answered yes and some commented that all employees should act professionally.

 

Question 8 asked respondents why they thought the number of CIH members has been decreasing for many years

  • 47% said because it is not required by employers
  • 37% said it is due to cost
  • 35.5% said because it is not relevant

Respondents also mentioned the time commitment to qualify, the reduced workforce, housing is not seen as a career choice or a long term career, lack of awareness and understanding of the benefits, there are alternatives available.

 

Question 9 asked respondents what they thought would encourage more employers in the housing sector to require employees to be a qualified housing professional

  • 37% said the benefits of membership to the employer need to be clearer
  • 15% said regulation is required to make it mandatory
  • 12% said the cost would have to reduce

Respondents also mentioned improving the CPD requirements and making qualifications more relevant. Some stated that employers shouldn’t encourage their employees to become qualified professionals.

 

Question 10 asked respondents what new skills, competencies, experience and knowledge the housing professional of the future will need. To summarise the varied responses given, employees need technical skills relevant to their role as well as soft skills, which are delivered using modern methods with an understanding of the big picture.

 

Question 11 asked respondents if they think the number of housing professionals will increase or decrease in the future. 46% said that it will decrease and 39% said that it will increase.

Of those who answered numbers would decrease, 25% said this will be because employers don’t see the benefit and 15% said it will be due to cost. Of those who answered numbers would increase, 43% said this will be because the sector is growing. Respondents also highlighted that numbers may increase following Grenfell, the skills shortage and the youth engagement at CIH (CIH Futures)

 

The final question asked if following the Grenfell tragedy and the focus on improving standards in the growing private rented sector, these industries will be professionalised. 41% responded that they would and 44% responded that they wouldn’t. Comments included the increased cost to employers and the likelihood of the government introducing regulation in this area.

Since this survey closed it has been announced that letting agents and estate agents will be required to obtain a nationally recognised qualification and comply with a mandatory code of practice. A new independent regulator will be given strong powers of enforcement.

 

Analysis

The survey responses therefore support the view from the secondary research that being a housing professional is more about acting professionally within an individualised profession, rather than a collective one.

Across a number of questions, responses focused on education/training, personal development, standards (including ethics) and experience as being the key traits of a professional and a professional body. Many responses highlighted the irrelevance of CIH to their role and there being no requirement to be a CIH member in order to be a professional, this can be achieved in other ways, without CIH membership. So whilst there may not be a clear technical knowledge base that all those working in the sector are required to be qualified in, it is clearly considered that being a professional involves undertaking study/training/CPD.

Respondents considered that the primary benefit of being a professional and of a professional body is to raise standards in the sector suggesting that whilst respondents may not see the need for CIH membership to be a professional, they do see the need for the CIH to oversee standards in the sector.

Additionally, the role of CIH in providing leadership and influencing others (in all directions) featured prominently in responses and this is clearly also considered to be a key function of the CIH.

The survey demonstrated support for professionalism in the housing sector but respondents highlighted that achieving this does not require CIH membership and many questioned the value of membership. It is not therefore professionalism that isn’t valued, but rather membership of a professional body.

 

The future of professionalism

Thornhill (2004) highlights Clarke and Newman (1991) comment that across all areas of social welfare provision, the climate for the professions is changing. The ‘bureauprofessional’ state is now being displaced by a ‘managerial state’ that is remaking the institutions, practices, culture and ideology of British social governance. They argue that the influence of the New Right and the emphasis on the rights of the consumer has created a culture of suspicion against bureaucrats and professionals. Paternalistic professions are challenged by a customer focused, market driven culture. Municipal bureaucracy, that has been at the core of the housing profession for fifty years, is displaced by a new social managerialism. The emphasis now is on reflective practice, client responsiveness and inter professional exchange, rather than the preservation and dissemination of exclusive knowledge built upon a defined technical base.

Furbey, Reid and Cole (2001) explain that new external measures of “effectiveness”, mechanisms of performance assessment, financial control and altered relations with consumers, carries major implications for traditional professional assumptions and identities. It is suggested that professional authority and autonomy, even in “strong” occupations such as medicine and law (Walker, 1999), is brought into sharp question. Some consider that the fluid status of housing would seem to suit this new climate. Whereas others expect housing, as a weak professional project, to be one of the first to founder.

Professionalism within this new managerialism world may resemble less the membership of a professional “church” that emphasises a body of “knowledge” and a strict behavioural code, and more a “new age” project of the self, developed reflexively over time by each individual, or within a local organisational culture rather than through a national institution.

 

Final thoughts

How does CIH adapt to this new world, particularly when it is already considered by some to be irrelevant? Does the recent government announcement to professionalise the private lettings agency and estate agency market provide an opportunity, should we expect a similar announcement for social housing in the green paper? Are there roles that require a clearly defined framework of knowledge (homelessness, lettings, housing management, development, asset management) or roles that support vulnerable people that should require qualification and compliance with a code?

An important question is not whether or not housing is defined as a profession as defined earlier, but rather if the sector is acting sufficiently professional? How can this be judged/measured? How would you rate the sector’s professionalism? If the future of professionalism lies in the hands of organisations rather than institutions, perhaps the role of CIH should be to set a high level framework and take a more active role in enforcing this?

 

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2 thoughts on “Valuing professionalism in housing

  1. Great blog Emma, I agree on the point that certain roles in housing should require the completion of certain training, set at a national level and supported by a code of practice. Compared to in the past, the function of the sector is much wider and increasingly, I would argue, teetering on the edge of delivering social care to people with increasingly complex needs.
    My suggestion would be something similar to the social work qualification that is a blend of University and placement. I no longer think it is sufficient to ‘pick it up’ or ‘learn on the job.’ Mentoring and coaching from experienced officers would be integral to CPD along the way but a professional qualification as a foundation – for me – is a must! I think it would help also with attracting people into the sector too as this would send out a clear message that a career in housing is not something you just fall into!

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  2. Hi Emma,

    Great piece of research. Very thought provoking for the future of careers in housing & CIH.

    Regarding the relevancy of CIH, I still feel CIH is still very much needed. I’ve noticed in most sectors that professional bodies are not as important as they once were, except for accounting. I’ve found CIH to be a great resource at the start of my career, mostly for knowledge, news, networking and events. I’ll be applying for mentoring shortly and hopefully will do a CIH qualification in future, too. CIH Futures is also a vital group, encouraging young people to the sector where there is an ageing workforce. It’s interesting to see networking had a low score. Without CIH, I wouldn’t have met as many great people. Networking is even more so important now as organisations in the sector are increasingly collaborating, CIH provides that chance to get to know people across the UK. I also appreciate having access to all the great events, knowledge CIH provides and a great subscription to Inside Housing. I feel employers should definitely encourage their workforce to have a membership for the reasons I’ve appreciated having one.

    Regarding upholding standards across the sector, I agree that there should be a national set of standards that are upheld by CIH. This could ensure that housing organisations are behaving ethically and their staff trained fully. These standards are important as we, as landlords, are ensuring citizens have a safe and secure home, and that’s something that shouldn’t be messed with. I completely agree with you that I dislike the idea of standards being upheld solely through self-development. We should have both self-development with an organisation and a body that upholds these standards. My only concern is if this national ‘code of practice’ will impact individuals getting a job in housing. In my job search, I found it difficult to get a job as I had very little experience being 22 and only graduating last year. I found my degree/qualifications made little impact on my job search. I would hope that this code of practice would not make it even more difficult for young people/people with experience in different areas to get a job in the sector.

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