Wednesday, 01 April 2015

Another piece of junk?

Tenant satisfaction surveys are no longer compulsory. So were they a waste of paper or a vital way to measure landlords’ performance, asks Emily Rogers

Amid the piles of junk mail likely to have dropped through tenants’ letterboxes, Status surveys may have been easy to miss.

But these standardised tenant satisfaction questionnaires became something of an institution over the 10 years they jostled with pizza delivery flyers for attention on residents’ doormats.

The survey, developed by the National Housing Federation in the late 1990s and introduced to social housing providers as a regulatory requirement at the turn of the millennium, had to be completed every three years by all English housing associations with more than 1,000 homes. Local authority landlords and arm’s-length management organisations in England were required to do the honours every two years.

There has been an improvement in tenant satisfaction throughout the period in which the questionnaire has run. For example, performance figures published by the Tenant Services Authority show that residents’ satisfaction with their landlords’ services grew from 76.9 per cent in 2002 to 85.2 per cent in 2010.

Like many regulatory requirements, though, the Status survey became a source of frustration for some social landlords, which complained it was over-prescriptive, inflexible and unmanageably long. It could also be costly, with some landlords spending up to £50,000 a go on postage, staff time and, for some, outside help. But many housing providers also came to value its standardised format, as it produced performance data which enabled them to compare themselves with others.

Now, however, tenants may find they have a bit more room on their doormats. At the end of May the TSA ditched rules forcing landlords to run Status surveys, as part of a dramatic reduction in housing regulation and the data landlords must submit to the soon-to-be-defunct watchdog.

Maintaining standards

Landlords can still use Status - they just don’t have to. Yet just as some are glad the survey is no longer mandatory, others are worried. Critics of the move fret that the survey’s demise could cause landlords’ standards to slip and that alternative methods of measuring their performance are inadequate. So who is right? And how can providers ensure they are measuring up, post-Status?

Hal Pawson, a part-time housing professor at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, is among those arguing that losing this standardised means of measuring tenant satisfaction is a mistake. He describes the move as a ‘total reversal of previous policy messages such as [former TSA chief executive] Peter Marsh’s threat to de-fund housing associations with unacceptable satisfaction ratings’.

He worries it could prove a backward step, particularly now that the Audit Commission is no longer carrying out routine housing inspections. ‘As I see it, the ending of a regulatory requirement to monitor tenant satisfaction according to a prescribed format is a retrograde step and one which raises questions about stated government commitments to a customer-focused social housing sector,’ he says. ‘Arguably, in an era when housing inspection has been virtually abandoned, other incentives for consumerist priorities need to be strengthened, not scrapped.’

Improving accuracy

Professor Pawson admits Status isn’t perfect - but says it should be improved, not abandoned. Research he co-authored with Ipsos Mori, published in February last year, recommended the Status regime should be made ‘tighter and less permissive’ (Inside Housing, 5 February 2010).

His study certainly uncovered problems with the survey’s implementation. Researchers quizzed 46 landlords which had run Status surveys in 2009. They found that the rules devised to ensure fair comparison of results, such as local authorities having to use postal rather than telephone surveys, were routinely being broken. And guidelines on how the results should be weighted to ensure they were representative of tenant populations were also being flouted resulting in overly flattering scores for some landlords.

Euan Ramsay, a director of Feedback Services, a specialist consultancy for tenant satisfaction surveys co-owned by the NHF, concedes a lack of flexibility hampered the effectiveness of Status. This, plus its inconsistent application nationwide, made its usefulness to landlords questionable.
‘There were huge variations in how it was regulated,’ he recalls, explaining that individual TSA staff would enforce it to differing degrees. ‘The system was being played a bit. People were thinking: we’ve got to do this every three years, so let’s do it and present the most positive picture we can.’

Despite these problems, Mr Ramsay describes Status as a very useful template, which ‘took out a lot of the guesswork’ for social landlords which do not specialise in market or social research. Certainly there does appear to be broad demand from social landlords for some form of standardised survey, to help them continue comparing their tenant satisfaction ratings with each other. So where should providers turn?

Alternative methods

Several alternatives to Status have emerged to date. Last month sector benchmarking organisation Housemark launched Star, short for ‘survey of tenants and residents’. Staff market it as a more flexible, voluntary version of Status, developed in partnership with big umbrella bodies including the National Housing Federation, Chartered Institute of Housing and Tenants and Residents Organisations of England.

The survey contains seven core questions, whittled down from the 36 in the Status survey, alongside a list of optional questions which allow landlords to adapt it to their own needs. ‘This enables people to tailor the survey outside these core questions, so it’s a bit of localism in action,’ says Housemark’s deputy chief executive Samantha McGrady. ‘Landlords can ask: what works best for us? What are we interested in at the moment? What are we interested in finding out? It’s flexible in that sense, but because we’ve got a core set of questions, it does mean that we can still undertake some national comparisons.’ It is also free to use.

When Housemark asked around 260 organisations for their views on Star, more than 90 per cent said they were very likely to sign up to it. Simon Dow, chief executive of 60,000-home Guinness Partnership, says it is ‘quite likely’ that his organisation will use the new survey, as his board found Status ‘very useful’. Other fans include Poppy Humphrey, customer experience manager at 4,500-home, Stockport-based Equity Housing Group. She says the organisation is ‘really looking forward to having Star, because there are a lot more benefits to having quite a bespoke questionnaire’.

Bespoke measures

Star is only one option set to fill the Status-shaped void. Plenty of organisations seem set to go about measuring customer satisfaction their own way, including by turning to the private sector for help.

Yet concerns remain that without a compulsory nationwide tenant satisfaction survey, tenants will be denied a complete set of consistent national data to let them compare their landlord with others. Nigel Long, head of policy at the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, says there is a strong argument for compulsory data collection to ensure that tenant scrutiny panels - a mainstay of the new ‘light touch’ regulatory regime - have teeth. He argues that without robust comparative data, panels will be unable to hold their landlords to account properly.

‘TPAS’s view is that as we strengthen resident scrutiny and look at how tenant panels can operate, then they’ve got to have clear performance information,’ he says. ‘What we need is tenants from tenant panels not only to “reality check” services, but [also to] have access to comparative data, so that they can have an in-the-round view of their landlord compared to others and look at how they’re doing over time.’

Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, questions the sector’s readiness for all the new freedoms associated with self-regulation, even as Status becoming optional has propelled them towards it. The change also concerns Alistair McIntosh, chief executive of the Housing Quality Network. He warns that by removing any centrally imposed means of measuring social housing quality, the government is setting social landlords up to become ‘sitting ducks’.

‘In the future, I can absolutely guarantee that some national body, perhaps the National Audit Office, will be asked by parliament, or will off its own back decide to look at the cost and effectiveness of social housing management,’ he warns. ‘And if everybody has gone their own way on quality measurement and if that measurement is not robust enough, we’re just sitting ducks.’

The sector’s challenge is clear: ensuring that whatever replaces Status doesn’t end up in the junk mail pile.

Changing status: how landlords plan to measure their performance now

The Tenant Services Authority no longer requires landlords to file Status survey data. But, says Samantha McGrady, deputy chief executive of Housemark, finding out what tenants think of services will help organisations provide value. That matters because the Homes and Communities Agency will be scrutinising value for money alongside financial viability when it begins regulating housing next year.

So what are landlords doing? Sixty-three thousand-home Circle is likely to continue using its own set of themed questionnaires. Executive director for operations Andy Doylend argues this produces more ‘robust, real time statistically valuable performance data’ than anything else he has seen. ‘We felt that it [Status] didn’t give us any value, if I’m honest,’ he says. ‘It often got published six to nine months after they [the performance statistics] were given to us. You’re then comparing apples with pears, because the data is out of date.’

Elsewhere money is being used to motivate staff to drive up tenant satisfaction. Fifty-five thousand-home Affinity Sutton is connecting staff bonuses with the results achieved from its own quarterly resident satisfaction surveys. ‘What we’re trying to do is make sure it’s part of everybody’s role, by making it part of their annual bonus collection,’ says the organisation’s group operations director Neil McCall. ‘Now everybody is interested in what our [resident satisfaction] survey says.’

Some social landlords are turning to the private sector for inspiration on how to improve customer satisfaction. Westminster arm’s-length management organisation City West Homes has just hired Real Service, a real estate customer service consultancy which sells benchmarking and networking services to mainly private sector businesses.

‘When you talk to other ALMOs now, the word, “customer”, [rather than tenant] is very much at the forefront of everybody’s thinking. That’s a real shift in the mindset of those providers,’ says Darren Levy, the organisation’s director of customer services. ‘The regulatory framework of inspections makes public sector organisations focus on all the hard stuff: policy, strategy, and quantities, such as how many times you do something and how quickly you do it.

‘But with the release from the regulatory framework, what you find when you look at private sector companies, is that the focus is on softer stuff, such as how you make customers feel and the service culture within your own organisation.’

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