Trust is fragile and as we are reminded with Covid vaccine hesitancy in certain communities, it often takes decades, if not generations to rebuild. It’s no different with social housing. Four years on since the Grenfell tragedy, the independent enquiry continues to seek answers, and although we now have legislation in place to improve building safety, there is so much more that needs to be done by social housing providers to listen, understand, respect and act on the views of their residents to regain their trust.
Mere token resident representation on boards and a few sparsely attended resident engagement events, generally attended by the same ‘available residents’, is unlikely to ever bridge the trust and transparency divide. Instead, social housing providers would need to courageously climb higher on Arnstein’s citizen engagement ladder towards partnership and perhaps in the not-so-distant future towards delegated power. Indeed some providers are higher up on the ladder than others; I haven’t come across any yet that are right at the top rung of the ladder.
However, one size will certainly not fit all and the Social Housing Charter White Paper recognises the need for appropriate tailoring. Social housing providers have demonstrated their ability to do so and provided invaluable community engagement during the pandemic reaching out to vulnerable, isolated households supporting them as required with phone check-ins, grocery deliveries or rent support. No other agency was better placed to do this. The challenge now is to sustain this level of resident engagement and responsiveness. Social housing providers must build on this foundation to get to know their residents even better, appreciate their needs, aspirations, expectations and be prepared to act upon it. It is only by demonstrating the highest standards of customer intimacy that providers would be able to support residents through the fast paced and irreversible impact of demographic, technological, economic and environmental changes. Simply put, organisational agility is critical to navigate the future requirements of social housing provision and service delivery in a post pandemic world.
The International Labour Organisation 2021 homeworking report outlines the sudden rise in numbers engaged in homeworking through the pandemic and details the implications for employers and workers. Given the millions living in UK social housing it would be facile to believe that for many homeworking residents the expectation of their social housing provider will simply remain confined to the provision of a decent, good quality home and neighbourhood. Resident expectations are likely to extend way beyond the provision of broadband as a utility, electric and fire safety, to addressing provisions for business support, training, wellbeing and other considerations associated with the running of any safe workplace. Understanding these changing expectations and inevitable social implications will be integral to deliver on the social housing charter’s baseline commitment to listen, understand, respect and act on the views and needs of residents.
Social housing providers are undeniably stretched for resources; eking out resource efficiencies and scrutinising costs to ensure value for money is provided across all social housing activities. Bolting on a renewed emphasis on resident expectations could create unhealthy competition with other urgent demands such as enhanced building safety, complaints resolution and addressing societal issues of loneliness, domestic abuse and anti-social behaviour.
An alternative approach is to place the resident needs at the centre and design the delivery of services around them. Listening and understanding their needs, requirements and changing expectations, harnessing the opportunities presented by new technologies and creating a variety of interaction channels will provide residents with the flexibility and choice to access the services they require.
Service design isn’t just about doing more for the same or less; it’s about ensuring that the extensive data and information available to social housing providers and the multitude of technology applications are used cohesively to inform and deliver the priorities for different residents. It could be the only way to move up the citizen engagement ladder to effectively rebuild trust and transparency with residents genuinely partnering with them to achieve the elusive self-reliance without the excessive bureaucracy that Octavia Hill envisioned more than a century ago.
Whilst there are strategic medium to long term benefits of this approach there are also short term benefits that can be realised. These include improvements in Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), Customer Effort Score (CES) and other Value for Money (VFM) metrics that are required for sector benchmarking and compliance with the new consumer regulatory requirements. Service improvements would be reflected through social media feedback channels recognising the improvements in customer services and sentiment. Good service design to get it right first time not only gives an excellent customer experience but also ensures value for money in service delivery.
Dipayan Roy is an experienced organisation design and business transformation consultant with experience in social housing, transportation, policing and technology sectors. He can be reached via LinkedIn.
 Sherry Arnstein (1969), A ladder of citizen participation, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35(4), 216-224
 National Housing Federation, Dec 2020 briefing for housing associations and partners ‘Coronavirus – sector response and current priorities’
 International Labour Organisation report titled Working from home – from invisibility to decent work, 2021
 Octavia Hill (3 December 1838 – 13 August 1912), one of the driving forces being the development of social housing and the national trust: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/octavia-hill-her-life-and-legacy and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octavia_Hill