Housing associations can glean significant efficiencies by opting for inclusive technology platforms, says Ian Stanley, Hitachi Solutions’ director of business development.
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Why is it important for housing associations to invest in technology to improve their efficiency?
At the moment social housing is in a challenging position, primarily due to budget cuts. The sector is under constant pressure to deliver a lot more with less money available, so obviously from there it’s causing housing associations to look at their structure. However, what’s really needed is for them to start thinking about working in new ways and with more efficiency. Technology can obviously help with those changes and maintain a flexible way of working.
It really is a challenging time for the sector – cuts are being made and the increased demand on the services is actually causing additional costs for providers. This should incentivise providers to look at their technology and identify how they can reduce some of those costs and become more efficient in the way that they work.
What do you think are the main obstacles for housing associations looking to improve the efficiency of their business?
The constant changes in the benefits and welfare reform – the roll-out of Universal Credit and the new implementation of a Pay to Stay plan in April 2017 – mean that housing associations have to react. To react they need people, they need IT solutions, and they need new ways of working, all of which is a demand on their staff and on their budgets.
With all that in mind, it distracts them from looking at everyday operations and how they can actually improve efficiencies. They’re constantly battling to keep up with changes. It makes it more difficult for them to invest time and money into change programmes.
What advice would you give to housing associations that plan to deliver efficiencies through IT systems?
I’ve done a fair few of these and I think I can say that it’s best to take it one step at a time and start simple. Housing processes, particularly around financials, repairs and asset management, can be complex. Starting simple and growing on that platform gives them the best possibility of getting it right first time and to achieve what they want from their solutions.
Also, it’s important to be clear about what it is they’re trying to achieve so that the outcomes they’re expecting are reached and a flexible, future-proof solution is built in.
How important is it for social landlords to be efficient in managing their data?
It’s really important, particularly when it comes to things like income management. They want to make sure they’re getting as much income in as they can. To do that, they need to have an understanding of their tenants and they need to have the most accurate and up-to-date information available, so that they have that view of the tenant, the household members, rent arrears, Universal Credit and so on.
By having all that it helps them to best understand the customers and their circumstances, including the risk of debt. Obviously all that information can help them to find the best possible way to support the tenant and the best possible way to cover possible arrears.
What are some of the common inefficiency issues you encounter when working with housing associations?
The overall cost of the service provision is always an expensive one, as they tend to have a lot of face-to-face clients and contact. We also tend to see that they’re working across multiple IT systems which can be a burden, especially when they’re looking to transfer data across multiple systems.
A big one for me is really around teams not having access to the information they need to deal with customers’ enquiries. Quite often contacts that have come in from tenants will be passed around to different departments to deal with because another department will hold that information, whereas if it was all in one single solution, chances are that more enquiries could be dealt with at the first point of contact. A CRM (customer relationship management) or ERP (enterprise resource planning) system can help address all of those issues.
What efficiency benefits can a single common platform offer housing associations?
Having a single view of the customer allows the organisation to actually tailor services to the individual’s needs. They get a really good profile of that customer and can understand how they can best support them. It allows them to take proactive measures, and they can start understanding trends with tenants and address those. That allows housing associations to work in a more joined-up way with third parties as well by sharing information more efficiently.
You can use data in those systems, then apply some simple eligibility checks to ensure that the housing association is providing a service to those people who are eligible for it. Quite often because data is across many systems, many associations don’t have that full picture to exactly understand what their tenants are eligible for.
Can you highlight any best practice examples whereby social landlords have gained efficiencies and improved services through the implementation of new systems?
We have seen associations reduce avoidable contact by keeping their customers up to date with the most accurate information over self-serve portals etc meaning that fewer staff are needed to deal with that contact. Having all that information in one place allows them to make that judgement in terms of what service that customer requires and deliver that service.
It also helps to reduce the number of formal complaints because things are being dealt with much quicker and they’re getting dealt with correctly, which has reduced the number of complaints that have come in to organisations.
Another benefit is that it reduces the amount of time it takes to deal with a customer enquiry. As all the information is in one place, you can process that enquiry much quicker and then that obviously reduces the cost of that service.
Other initiatives have included delivering efficiency to local government and social housing landlords by digitising the previous telephone channel, allowing issues to be resolved online and reducing call volume by up to 30%.
Ian Stanley is Hitachi Solutions’ director of business development. He has over 20 years’ experience within the IT industry and has specialised in the housing association sector for the last three years.