Having an Audit Commission inspection may not exactly be welcomed - especially now that there are new standards to meet. But if you prepare properly you could hit the inspection bull’s-eye. Anita Pati reports
It’s quality as well as appearance that counts – so whether you get a full Audit Commission service inspection or one at short notice, your organisation should already be on target.
Organisations have so far been focused on the Audit Commission’s key lines of enquiry (KLOE) during inspection. In addition, the Tenant Services Authority last month published its statutory consultation, setting out six new standards which emphasise the relationship between landlords and their tenants at local level. From 1 April 2010, inspection will be a TSA power, says Andrew Dench, TSA assistant director for choice.
Although the KLOEs are being reviewed, their final form will not swerve too much from the basic principles of good housing, he says. Certainly for the time being, KLOEs provide useful guidance.
So we take a look at the key messages from recent inspections and come up with five top targets to get the perfect result.
‘What landlords should be doing is delivering really good services for their tenants,’ says Mr Dench. ‘If you, as a landlord, are organising your business so it’s tenant-focused and meeting tenants’ needs and specific standards, then an inspector can come in at any point, and you’ll get an excellent rating.’
The Audit Commission’s Roy Irwin, director of housing, sustainability and economic development, says organisations should continue to ‘look at their strengths and weaknesses.
Instil quality in all that you do
Jim Wilson, now managing consultant at Tribal, was an Audit Commission inspector for two years. ‘You need to always be focused on service enquiry,’ he says. ‘Using the key lines of enquiry is a very good foundation stone for achieving excellence but there’s no point doing it as a one-off exercise. It should be part of your culture… Inspectors are very used to smelling fresh paint,’ he says.
‘Just run your business well,’ says Mr Irwin. ‘If you’re not running the business well, then inspection just takes a photograph of you messing around.’
Show value for money
‘Be clear on what your service costs are and the performance you’re getting out of the organisation for that cost,’ says Mr Wilson. Using benchmarking organisations such as Housemark will enable organisations to assess whether its service cost is above or below the average, he says. Mr Irwin suggests organisations start assessment in very simple ways: ‘Look at your accountancy and think, “which external supplier do we spend most of our money on?” Then look at how good that supplier is against what you’re spending.’
The same benchmarking process can be applied internally, says Mr Irwin, looking at where most staff time is spent: ‘You can do that by tasks or location. Is our time spent evenly or in certain places and is that because the demand is legitimately there or are we less efficient there and less fleet of foot in dealing with issues?’
Be hot on diversity
‘The Audit Commission is expecting organisations to have very accurate profile data as to who their tenants are,’ says Mr Wilson. This includes family make-up as well as BME background and faith. But housing organisations often let this run out of date. ‘Organisations have been quite poor about storing that information and mining that information,’ says Mr Wilson, adding that inspectors want to see how it is used proactively.
Mr Irwin agrees that organisations hold a great deal of information on their customers, but that, ‘the application of that data for the benefit of the relationship between the landlord and the tenant is not that high’.
‘It’s interesting when people get to the age of 100 they get a birthday card from the Queen. How many housing providers actually know which of their tenants are 100?’ he asks.
In practical terms, Mr Wilson says, ‘there is a great deal of potential’ in the data held on tenants. He suggests that organisations can produce translated documents by assessing the number of people for whom English is not a first language. Other suggestions are analysing family data to offer repairs appointments to single parents outside of school-run time.
Push customer access and service
Learn from complaints. Mr Irwin says service requests are often reworks. ‘How many times across all your services is your second conversation logged as a repeat of the first conversation? That’s where there’s waste in the system.’
Also, look at the complaints content – is it a unique complaint?’ he asks. ‘Or could it just be the telephone manner of a particular officer or the manner and attitude of the call centre? Most complaints are quite reasonably put and maybe [the complainants] feel ignored. It’s about customer satisfaction and treating people with respect.’ Mr Irwin says it can annoy tenants when information they’ve given is not recorded and they have to keep repeating it.
Foster a good relationship with your inspector
Mr Wilson compares inspection as being similar to a dental visit: ‘You’re not going to look forward to it but it should bring benefits in the long term if you go.’ He says there’s no point in tiffs with the inspector. ‘The inspectors hold all the aces here in this game so if you try to put up resistance it’s going to be more painful, more difficult and you’re very unlikely to win. If you start to be awkward, you’ll just wind them up.’
‘Always be honest,’ advises Mr Wilson, who explains that housing association officers in one-to-one interviews may feel they should know everything they are asked about. ‘If you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t know.’ Instead, direct them to the best person. ‘The problem with blagging it is that if [the truth emerges], then everything you said to the inspector can be discredited.’
But Mr Irwin says that how the inspector is treated holds no sway on the final inspection result. ‘We’ve had people smothering us with chocolate biscuits and it doesn’t make any difference. What really matters is the relationship they have with their customers.’ However, he concedes that the way the organisation treats its inspectors gives an indication of how it treats its customers.
CASE STUDY 1
THE HOUSING ASSOCIATION
Evesham and Pershore Housing Association (a subsidiary of Rooftop Housing Group), inspected September 2008.
Evesham and Pershore Housing Association provides an excellent service with excellent prospects for improvement in the district of Wychavon in Worcestershire where, being the largest landlord, demand is high for its affordable homes.
Bull’s-eye: Value for money
The Audit Commission says: ‘The association uses a range of tools to help embed value for money and efficiency within its strategic and operational work.’
Evesham and Pershore has saved costs by using payment cards and removing traditional cash collection methods. The money released has been used to recruit a housing officer and a resident involvement officer. Officers can now spend more time on schemes and estates, which is what residents had asked for. Investing with partners has also led to an occupational therapist service and a family intervention project.
Ian Hughes, group chief executive at parent Rooftop Housing Group, says that allowing the human resources director to manage the inspection process left housing director Juliana Crowe ‘free to concentrate on doing the work’.
Top tips for a great inspection
1 Involve residents and board members, not just staff, in the whole inspection process – ‘this was integral to our open approach to inspection and ensured that everyone was ‘on message’, says Ian Hughes.
2 It’s never too early to start preparing. Remember that you need to be extremely self-aware and analytical in your self-assessment and ensure it fits with the key lines of enquiry.
3 Manage the process as professionally as you can – the inspection is an opportunity to sell yourself. If you do it well, it will be presumed that you do other things effectively too.
CASE STUDY 2
Berneslai Homes, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, inspected June 2009.
Arm’s length management organisation Berneslai Homes was judged a good, two-star service, with promising prospects for improvement in February 2006. It now has three stars with excellent prospects for improvement. The council established it as an ALMO in December 2002.
Bull’s-eye: Quality in all that you do
The Audit Commission says: ‘Gas servicing is now an area of strength (2009). The vast majority of properties have a valid gas safety certificate and there is strong performance in carrying out servicing in timescale. Robust arrangements are in place to gain access.’
Most properties have valid gas safety certificates and 99.9 per cent of solid fuel appliances have also been serviced within the past year. Servicing is done by appointment, with evening and Saturday mornings available during the two months prior to the service being due.
Software pop-up boxes appear on the housing management computer system prompting staff to make an appointment if the customer contacts on another issue. Berneslai block-books slots in the magistrates’ court in advance to help minimise delays in obtaining warrants to gain entry. The joint approach of legal action and prolonged attempted contact meant only 10 of the 187 warrants obtained last year resulted in forced entry.
CASE STUDY 3
Cambridge City Council landlord services, inspected December 2008.
Roy Irwin says that three-star local authority landlord services are harder to come by, as the Audit Commission generally risk assesses struggling ones. However, he recommends Cambridge Council as a good case study which has a two-star rating with excellent prospects for improvement. The council directly manages housing stock of 7,500 plus around 1,000 leasehold properties.
Bull’s-eye: Access and customer service
The Audit Commission says: ‘Customer feedback is extensively gathered and used, resulting in improved services for customers, and strong resident involvement is influencing service standards and how services are developed.’
The council feeds back in the tenants’ newsletter which includes a ‘You said it, we did it’ section in every issue, demonstrating resident impact on services. Customer feedback data is kept on the intranet for easy staff access. Complaints are used for learning and improving services and discussed in quarterly and annual reports.
For example, the council responded to complaints about damp by producing a leaflet on condensation and how residents can combat it. Resident inspectors monitor services and standards as part of the Tenants’ Compact, which sets out how tenants can be involved in decision-making.
Top tip for excellent customer care
‘Evidence of service improvements from customer feedback is vital for an excellent rating to demonstrate that the landlord is listening to customers and acting on their comments, as well as involving them in service standards and improvements,’ says Robert Hollingsworth, head of City Homes at the council.