Influencing Academy

The first National Housing Federation Influencing Academy took place a few days ago.

I am very pleased to have been selected to join the Academy as one of the East Midlands representatives. The Academy is part of the Fed’s Owning Our Future work and is the next step in the journey to transform how the housing association sector is perceived and build the relationships we need with policy-makers. A big part of this work is telling our story, if you haven’t seen the video telling this story, you can check it out here:

The Academy was a three day residential, with a fantastic programme to give us the tools we need to become great influencers, it included:

Citizens UK, who discussed power with us (and to remember power is a neutral word meaning the ability to do something). It’s important to understand the balance of power in any relationship, but also not to underestimate the ‘weaker’party’s power, especially their potential power; this is crucial if you are the weaker party. If you want change, you need power, and power can be built through relationships, but these need to be built on trust, connection and mutual respect. Who do housing associations need to build power with?

Conservative Home Editor, Mark Wallace, who gave us his insights of the Conservative Party, some of the key national players and Theresa’s approach to the Premiership compared to others.We discussed the impact of Brexit on the Government’s resources and how predecessors define the work of their successors. Mark highlighted some of the PM’s areas of interest and the importance of framing any influencing work in these terms, such as the Industrial Strategy, Just about Managing families, etc.

Storytelling with Weber Shandwick, who are the PR firm behind the Fed’s perception research and sector story video. This session highlighted the importance of simple, authentic messages told through stories that are based on a human connection between the storyteller and listener.
In prep for this session, we were asked to watch this video:
We then were asked to introduce ourselves via a 60 second story that grabbed attention, included interest and intrigue, and told something personal and professional. This was an incredibly inspiring exercise and reminded all of us of our passion for the work we do in housing. If you can do this with your team, I definitely recommend it.
The framework for telling a great story is this: set an objective, identify barriers to telling the story, identify the point of connection, agree the message, tell it through story in these 6 steps: grab attention, establish the setting, humanise, identify tension, identify Eureka moment, communicate outcome. We were shown videos of Richard Branson and Ronald Reagan to demonstrate the 6 steps in action: (start at 6 minutes in for Virgin Airlines story)

Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirrall South, gave fantastic insight into the practicalities of getting an MP’s attention and support. She talked us through 4 challenging campaigns and her view of what worked well and what didn’t: the smoking ban, foreign aid spending, assisted suicide and same sex marriage.
She reminded us that MPs work only for their constituents and they are the key to gaining their support. Also, that they have crazy diaries and cannot support every issue, looked for shared priorities, bring solutions and be action focused. The big take away message from Alison for the group was that politics is 10% ideas and 90% logistics, meaning the Academy has a lot of work ahead of us!

Alistair Campbell was our final speaker, who spoke a lot about having a strategy and remaining true to your values to guide any influencing work. He shared our frustration that despite housing affecting everyone throughout their entire lives (unlike health and education), it is still not the top voter issue.

On the last day of the Academy, we started to make our influencing plans for our regions and areas of specialism such as BME, rural, disabled, homelessness, smaller housing, etc. Myself and fellow East Midlands influencers Holly Dagnall and Emma Foody will be getting together soon to progress our plans so watch this space and get in touch if you want to be involved, have an idea or would like to build/share power with us!


Channel shift or channel stop?

Hopefully this will be the  first of many posts this year to make up for my almost complete lack of blogging last year (on the bright side we’ve done a lot of decorating and been to a lot of weddings!)

I’ve been involved in many discussions in the last couple of years about channel shift and everything that comes with it, in particular creating ‘self-service portals’ so good customers will never need to pick up the phone again.

But progress throughout the sector seems to be very limited so I wonder if our efforts would be better spent trying to get ahead of the game rather than get to where others were 10 years ago?

Rather than investing hours of meeting time and spending thousands with software companies to allow customers to self-serve, why not focus on removing the need for customers to request service at all? Surely that’s the dream, that there’s no need to get in touch, not being able to check your rent account at midnight in your pajamas?

Don’t call us we’ll call you, to do a property health check to service the house rather than wait for it to breakdown, to action the message we received from the intelligent components in the property, to offer the support we know you need based on the info we hold so tenancies are never breached, you get the idea.

I wonder how many calls for service could have been prevented if we shifted our mindset to proactive rather than reactive?

Make the most of membership

Last week I attended the ONE CIH conference for the second time. The conference is an opportunity for all CIH board members from the English regions, devolved nations and central Governing board to get together. Senior CIH staff also attend and the purpose is to review the previous year and think about the year coming up. It’s a great opportunity to share ideas, network with other board members and challenge one another. Ultimately, it’s about improving the services provided to CIH members and the wider role of CIH to society.

Like many membership organisations that don’t benefit from mandatory membership (like RIBA or RICS), member numbers have fallen in recent years and it is a much debated topic about how we CIH board members can tackle this. Unsurprisingly, it was a session topic at ONE CIH and I made sure I attended the discussion in the hope of finally tackling this problem.

In summary, the session centered around how we improve our communication to current and potential members. It was agreed that the membership offer is good on the whole but better marketing is needed to ensure both professionals and employers realise its benefits.

During the session, there was a lot of discussion around using peer-to-peer communication methods as these were considered to be more powerful than others. So as a regional board member, I was challenged to share why I value my CIH membership. So here goes…

I first joined CIH as a student when completing my Level 4 Certificate in Housing. Whilst I had chosen to pursue a career in housing, I hadn’t studied housing previously and as someone who enjoys studying I was keen to do this as soon as I could. I remained a student member for about 5 years as I progressed to a BSc Housing. At this point in my career, the value of CIH membership was access to courses and related information and events.

I really value studying and promote it to anybody that I can, whilst it may not always improve your technical knowledge to do a certain job, it improves other skills such as critical analysis, understanding of the bigger picture, researching good practice, making arguments for and against, etc. It can also stir an interest in lifelong learning as you realise the benefits of removing your nose from the grindstone every once in a while. For those looking to climb the career ladder, obtaining a certain level of qualification is usually a necessity.

About 2 and half years ago, I successfully applied to the CIH East Midlands student bursary scheme and as a result became a co-opted member of the board. I’d previously considered applying to join the board as I knew another colleague who had done so, but I never quite brought myself to do it. Being a board member is now the biggest benefit of my CIH membership. Through my board role, I have developed a huge support network across the housing spectrum and not just in the East Midlands. Having this network has been hugely beneficial as I can tap into their knowledge, experience and expertise, either for practical work reasons or personal development reasons. One of the brilliant things about housing is that everyone is so willing to share and support each other, something that is more important than ever in these changing and challenging times.

Board membership has also given me some fantastic opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as presenting at a leaders roundtable event alongside Terrie Alafat and Boris W0rrall, speaking at CIH Manchester, organising the biggest Midlands awards and networking event, hosting a policy roundtable, contributing to the new PRS qualification, and even a job opportunity.

The other side of the board member coin is that I get to give something back to the CIH and also influence their work. For those who are dissatisfied with their CIH membership, consider getting involved to effect the changes you would like to see.

Finally, being a CIH member has given me an ego and profile boost by being eligible to apply for prestigious awards, including Student of the Year (which I won) and Rising Stars (made the final three in 2014).

CIH membership is what you make of it and will mean something different to each member. I’d love to hear what you value most about your CIH membership.


The machines are coming…

but are they bringing our freedom with them?

Recently, I’ve come across quite a few articles on the idea of a Universal Basic Income or Citizens’ Income. Quite a few propose the idea as a response to a predicted rise in unemployment, due to the looming automation of many industries and jobs.

UBI is a really interesting concept and some countries/cities are already researching and even trialing it. But I find the idea of automation and the resulting lack of employment opportunities more interesting. In particular, the freedoms that it could bring for individuals to follow a dream, pursue a new direction, take a break, care for someone, retrain; ultimately to have choice and not feel trapped in any employment situation.

I won’t go in to the detail of UBI or automation, lots of others, much more expert in the topic, have already done that. I’ve pasted lots of links below if you want to find out more.

I wonder how automation might play out in the housing sector? Especially if connected to the Internet of Things; perhaps properties that pretty much repair themselves as they diagnose when a repair will be required (before it’s needed) and schedule the repair, ensuring all required materials are printed off the 3D printer and loaded in the van? Or rent accounts that are processed entirely by machines, only bringing in humans when a phone needs answering (except to take a payment) or a customer needs visiting? In an ideal world, when automation is mainsteam, processes will be cheaper to deliver and so resources can be freed up to invest in housebuilding or services that some might describe as ‘added value’.

I expect most of us are currently reviewing our processes and service offerings in the wake of budget cuts and other policy challenges, but how many of us are looking to increase the use of technology in our processes, particularly to automate them?


Interesting links, in no particular order:–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model/

Why fit in, when you were born to stand out?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being on the same billing as Terrie Alafat, Boris Worrall and Chris Hobson. We were all speaking at a leader’s roundtable event organised by the CIH East Midlands on the topic of unprecedented political change. It was a great event, very well attended with some really interesting debate during the 90 minute session. More importantly, I left the session feeling hugely encouraged; lately, housing can feel like a negative sector to be in, but the senior housing professionals around the room all spoke so passionately about their work. In particular, there was no feeling of a sector that is fracturing, everyone is still looking to work together to provide the housing their area needs.

Below are the notes from my opening pitch, titled as the young leader’s perspective (though I’m not sure how much longer I can get away with claiming to be a young leader!

As we all know, the housing sector has seen huge changes in recent years, which only seem to be increasing exponentially in their scale and number. These changes are challenging our existence and as a result we’re all agonising over who we are, what we do and why.

My perspective is that it’s vital that each housing provider is crystal clear about their vision, objectives and values and stick to them no matter what. And it’s ok for each ALMO, council and housing association to take a different approach. If that means a housing association focuses on purely commercial activity going forward, maybe that’s ok too, do they deserve to be publicly criticised? Doesn’t that just further the Government’s campaign to kill off social housing? At the very least, let’s respect each other’s choices, learn from each other’s successes and failures and focus on making sure everyone has a home they can afford.

It’s deeply ingrained in our sector to compare ourselves to other providers, to make sure we are keeping up with the Jones’s (or the Kardashian’s depending on your generation) but doing it better, faster, cheaper. And now that many of us are dabbling in commercial markets, we have even more comparisons to make.

But I think sometimes it does more harm than good to compare yourself to others, whether they are similar to you or very different. In my role managing market rent properties, I’m often asked what would a private landlord do in a given situation, so that we might follow their example, but given that there are over 2 million private landlords in the UK, there are over 2 million answers to that question! My old landlord sent us a Christmas card every year and replaced our broken boiler in one working day, but I know for sure plenty of other private landlords and even social landlords don’t operate like that!

That’s not to say that comparison is always a bad thing, I think there are definitely some key lessons to learn from private landlords and the wider commercial sector, namely the effect of being financially connected to the activity/company (through personal investment, bonuses, etc) has on innovation, culture and the service customers receive.

So maybe we could all make a late New Year’s resolution to only compare the stuff that matters, that will result in everyone having somewhere affordable to live. And if we all find a different way to achieve that, then so be it, after all, not everyone is facing the same housing crisis.

I think I’m one of a handful of people working in housing that actually sought out this career path, and part of the attraction was to have a positive impact on society and to work for an organisation with strong principles and values, and I think lots of my generation feel the same. So I’ll end by saying whatever your chosen vision and values are, stick to them, don’t let others inside and outside the sector, or the Government, distract or deter you, we’re already facing plenty of change, let’s not create any more than we need to.

To own or to rent

As it’s a new year, it seems appropriate to write a new blog post. My first in a while, actually.

My absence from the blogosphere is mainly a result of becoming a homeowner for the first time. Yes, I’ve finally achieved that Great British aspiration of owning bricks and mortar, I’m sure David Cameron is thrilled.

Unlike most, I’m a big advocate of the private rented sector and didn’t rush into the expense, restriction and responsibility of owner occupation.

For 10 years, I’ve lived in the PRS, first in student housing, then young professional shared housing, then non-shared. I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome landlord, and I mean really awesome. He sent us Christmas cards, reduced the rent when times were hard, replaced our broken boiler in one working day, let us decorate, didn’t charge fees, never increased the rent, provided furniture, gave us a rolling tenancy that lasted 6 years in the end. The list goes on.

This is how renting should be and both private and social landlords could learn a lot from my old landlord. If renting did look like this for the majority, perhaps I wouldn’t have been told about a 1000 times that rent is dead money. I was always happy to pay for the lack of repair responsibility and flexibility to move if needed. Besides, isn’t mortgage interest dead money or am I missing something?!

And finding a house to rent was so much easier than finding one to buy. This may come as a shock to those in the south, but there are some very desirable parts of Sheffield and property gets snapped up. Over the last 12 months, we’ve endured 20+ viewings, using our allotted 15 minutes to decide if we should spend our life savings, before the next of about 20 others came to do the same thing. We’ve offered over the asking price, sometimes by a £1000, sometimes £2000, one time a lot more, only to be out bid.

Meanwhile, friends of ours that had bought a couple of years earlier were enjoying the rising house prices and recalling how it wasn’t that competitive when they were buying. It was very tempting to give up the search or settle for whatever we could get our hands on, just so the ordeal would be over and we could finally say this woodchip wallpaper is all ours.

But we held out and got what we were looking for, albeit we had to offer over the asking price. But being a home owner isn’t enough is it? We have to be the owner of a perfect home, so despite many conversations that we would make do with the current tired decor and steadily improve one room at a time, we’ve spent the last three months pulling down a wall, replacing a roof, plastering and fitting a new kitchen. I was so happy the day we had a functioning kitchen sink and the days of doing the washing up in the bathroom sink were over!

I’m so grateful for everything our landlord did for us, renting from him gave us time to save up a 15% deposit and not rely on Government schemes, the bank of Dad or having to stretch ourselves to buy with a 5% deposit and be burdened with a huge monthly mortgage repayment. I know others are in a very different boat though. Wouldn’t it be great if the Government focused on providing a housing market that provides the different solutions we need during the different phases of our lives, rather than just pushing people to burden themselves with home ownership as quickly as possible?

Anyway, I’ve got woodchip to strip :)