The use of social media can get more residents involved in the management of their homes, says Bill Randall
Social media made its debut in a big way at the latest city assembly for council tenants and leaseholders (hereafter residents) in Brighton and Hove recently.
Held twice a year and always chaired by a resident, the assembly gives tenants a chance to sound off on issues that concern them. The latest was an assembly with a difference and with several firsts: the first time a crèche had been provided, the first time the event had been webcast live, the first time residents were given an opportunity to discuss the council’s budget proposals publicly and the first time large screens were provided to display Twitter comments throughout the debates from people inside and outside the hall, including one tweet from the Indonesian Ministry of Health during a session on health issues. Follow that.
The result of the 21st century approach was a much bigger attendance than before. About 150 residents came along, almost twice as many as last time, and they fully embraced the use of social media. Significantly, younger residents were more in evidence than ever before, including one or two teenagers - one of whom spoke during the debate.
Most of the city’s resident representatives are aged 50 or over and several are closer to my age. Devoted to the cause, they do an incredible job and populate the many housing panels set up by the council to look at everything from maintenance contracts to sheltered housing. Most importantly, they hold strong, clear and experienced views on every subject under the sun and make a valuable contribution to the city’s housing debate, not least through a housing management consultative council of residents and councillors that meets six times a year.
Supplementing their number with younger residents to eventually take on their mantle is a challenge for our council and one that will be familiar to almost every reader of Inside Housing. For this reason, we are looking at new ways to involve residents in the conversation about the management and maintenance of their homes and the future of their estates and communities.
Many younger residents and an increasing number of their older neighbours are social media savvy, and many of them already use the residents’ Facebook page. On the city assembly day, 448 people watched online and others have checked out the event in the past couple of weeks. More than 100 tweeted, some of them repeatedly, on the day. Our hope is to involve more of these residents and their neighbours in the participation process through Twitter, text and Facebook. Many of them are working families with children or carers for older or disabled relatives who find it very difficult to take part in the democratic debate if it’s largely limited to formal meetings at inconvenient times (it’s the same with elected councillors, but that’s another story).
Through the council’s website, residents are invited to add their names to a resident involvement database and help improve housing management services. They are also asked to state the ways in which they would like to be involved, a list that includes online forums and using Twitter, Facebook or other social media. An increasing number of residents choose one of these options, and the housing management team has assembled an e-list of more than 2,000 residents’ addresses.
We are building on this work as part of our campaign as a council to embrace the new social media in everything we do. Brighton and Hove is a digital city. More than 1,500 companies crowd the digital sector, ranging from a Walt Disney European office to bright young web wizards operating from their bedrooms. One of these might just be the next Mark Zuckerberg. We live in hope for the sake of the city’s economy.
Our other council services are also embracing new social media. More than 30 per cent (and rising) of all inquiries about refuse collection are by text or through the council website, which is cheaper than phoning for all parties concerned. The number of phone calls to the service has gone down and therefore the number of unsuccessful calls has fallen from 30 per cent to 1 per cent.
The demise of blue collar unions has seen a loss of skills among local communities, who no longer have the same number of champions who have learned about running organisations through their union work. Twenty years ago the chair of the West Kent Housing Association’s tenants’ association was a union activist, a member of the regional co-op board and a magistrate. Such people are few and far between today, but there is a new generation coming through who have a different set of web-based skills and experience. Given the chance to make their contribution in a different way, they could be critical to the future of a sustainable model of tenant participation.
It is important, of course, to remember there are people who do not use computers or smart phones and will never tweet, text or log on to Facebook. Ways of involving them must always be maintained. But I suspect the shape of resident involvement will be very different by end of this decade. What matters is that residents are involved one way or another. An asset to social housing, we ignore their voice at our peril. We must all do everything we can to involve them in the management of their homes and estates.
Bill Randall is a Green Party councillor, leader of Brighton & Hove Council, and a housing journalist