Thoughts from Community Housing Cymru’s Technology Focus Group

Some background…

Housing associations are private, non-profit making organisations that provide low-cost “social housing” for people in need of a home

Community Housing Cymru is the membership body that represents all Welsh Housing Associations.

“The purpose of the focus group is to gather representatives from across the sector to discuss how we can use technology, in its broadest sense to build and maintain our homes, address fuel poverty, interact/engage with tenants, do business more efficiently, ensure we’re keeping up with trends and much more…”


Up front I’d like to give a shout out to Community Housing Cymru for arranging this event. Technology will play a huge role in the future delivery of social housing, probably in ways we can’t yet conceive, so it’s pleasing to see efforts to include this in future thinking.

It was great to chat with people from different Housing Associations, and different professions about the technological problems and opportunities that we face. Recognition I think, that regardless of what professional field you come from, technology is the connective tissue that enables much of our collective purpose.

I wanted to jot down some thoughts from the afternoon, more than anything to bring some order to the jumble of stuff in my head. These are not exhaustive minutes, just some personal reflections based on what I saw and heard.

Same problems, different sector

A patchwork of data stored in separate systems, lack of understanding about modern digital ways of working, minimal investment in the future, low levels of digital leadership, inflexible & expensive technology suppliers, duplication of effort, lack of collaboration, constant reinvention of the wheel…

How many of these are familiar to you? Having spent some time over the last few years speaking to others working in the public and third sector, the same issues keep popping up. They are far from unique to social housing.

The reason they’re ubiquitous is that our organisations & institutions are operating on old industrial age models that used to serve us very well. Whilst we might aspire to design services as slick as any modern digital business (Amazon, Lyft, Monzo) no amount of shiny new technology will save us from the job of having to change the underlying operating model to make it fit for the digital age.

The method of designing things inside the organisation out is no longer viable, because it results in the same old patterns of services that rarely meet people’s expectations where the majority of us carry Internet connected supercomputers around in our pockets and bags. Everything now has to mostly work everywhere, all the time.. and fast.

Re-designing a service, never mind a whole organisation is admittedly a daunting prospect. If you’ve already got somebody working on anything with ‘digital’ or ‘transformation’ in the name and they don’t have the remit to reinvent your underlying operating model, even in a small incremental way, then they’re probably going to end up repeating the past by default.

If it looks like the old way of working, and sounds like the old way of working, and it’s broadly the same old people talking about it, in what way is it actually transformative?

User Needs / Customer Experience

If we don’t fully understand what people need from social housing, we’re destined to do stuff that nobody wants.

The Government Digital Service pioneered the approach of User Centred Design to great effect. Essentially they took modern digital design practices and applied them to Government services. They enforced (some say, too abruptly for the status quo) an approach where Government departments started with understanding user needs and then re-designed their services accordingly.

They gained an understanding of what users of Government services needed by conducting user research. Getting out into the world and talking to people who use the service to get a greater understanding about what they were trying to do and making a note of things didn’t work so well.

An example of user testing with the public. From this post: https://alistapart.com/article/collaborative-user-testing-less-bias-better-research

This approach proved to be fairly transformative. Understanding how your service fits in the full context of someone’s life closes the empathy gap between the people designing the system and the people using it. It’s a realisation that our services are often not the centre of someone else’s world. We are just one interaction amongst many in someone’s often busy day.

This deeper empathic understanding should lead to a more accessible & efficient approach to service delivery and may even enable us to better join up complimentary public services when we understand the broader context of people’s lived experience.

I was wondering whether it was possible to create a baseline set of personas (a way to model, summarise and communicate research about people) that would be applicable to all Housing Associations operating in Wales. I think you’d have to be careful that they are well researched and not just broad stereotypes, but they could be especially useful for smaller Housing Association’s that don’t have the capability or resource to do this work on their own, but want to inform the design of their services based on some sort of well researched ethnography.

Engagement

Related to understanding people’s needs and designing an excellent customer experience, I think there’s a huge opportunity for doing things WITH tenants. Arguably, Housing Associations have been doing this for ages in the form of tenant participation, but I don’t often see it widely applied to digital services.

When you last rolled out digital services, what part of the ladder did you use with staff and tenants?

If we can learn anything from the connected age it’s that people no longer automatically trust marketing campaigns, professionals, experts or centralised sources of information. For better or worse, the Internet has had a decentralising effect on the world around us.

Trust and recognition is increasingly earned based on the organic (sometimes algorithmically assisted) conversations people have with each other about a product or company. It’s why we’ve seen advertising money funnelled towards celebrity ‘influencers’ on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. It’s a way of gaming the social network to align your brand with a popular, trusted person. Then by proxy you become trusted too in the eyes of their audience.

I’m not advocating for Kim Kardashian to subtly drop social housing into an Instagram post (..or am I?!). We’ve got to do the hard work at building our own online and offline community. Earning trust & recognition by working openly, developing a community, making it easy (and fun?) for people to participate and regularly demonstrating how feedback has resulted in measurable positive outcome.

If you think this all sounds entirely fanciful but impossible to implement in practice, have a look at Monzo’s transparent product roadmap. Monzo have an incredibly loyal following. People LOVE using their banking product (myself included) and regularly recommend it to their families and friends. They’ve pulled off the impressive feat of making banking cool, approachable and accessible.

Monzo’s product roadmap. Publicly available for anyone to see and more importantly, vote on.

This is because people feel they have some level of ownership over Monzo and its direction. This is in stark contrast to the traditional monolithic banks which seem like they’re a million miles away from their customer base. When’s the last time someone had anything positive to say to you about HSBC or Halifax?

Monzo have been developing the their banking product in the open long before it was officially launched to the public. They regularly demonstrate they’re listening to their customers by releasing improvements that people have suggested, usually based on where the most demand is.

When they run into difficulties, they’re radically transparent about the source of the problem and what they’re doing to resolve it. This is how trust is now earned, through openness, transparency and inviting people to contribute to make things better.

And if you’re still thinking that banking isn’t relevant to the context of social housing, have a read of this blog post about the work Monzo has done on designing their product for customers with financial difficulties.

Standardisation (aka good digital practice)

How many ways can you report a repair? How many times do we try and design this process in isolation (.. of each other and tenants)? How often is the process largely determined by the capabilities or restrictions of the IT system that’s been procured to handle it?

There’s really not a massive amount of innovation the needs to be introduced to the act of reporting a repair. It just needs to collect all the relevant information in a way that’s accessible to everyone. If we got our heads together (including people who actually live in social housing and report repairs) I bet we could design some guidelines for the best version of this.

This is already happening in some Councils. Local Government Digital Service Standard is an effort to identify a good practice approach for the delivery of modern digital services. Notably, it’s agnostic of technology. So the purpose is not to corral everyone into using the same systems (because that’s not practical or realistic) but instead they’re an agreed set of standards upon which anyone can build and try to improve.

Is there a case for an open (as in, not hidden behind a paywall or controlled by a singular entity) Social Housing Digital Standard that everyone can use and contribute toward? I’ve often wondered why this doesn’t already exist, and perhaps the answer is.. rather than waiting around for someone else to spring into action, I should just go ahead and publish something on the Internet. It definitely won’t be right, but at least it’s a jumping off point.

In the context that many of us are still relying on technology vendors to design systems on our behalf, it might also be useful to point them towards an agreed standard that is backed by the weight of our collective research & data. That feels like a potentially massive win/win/win for tenants, Housing Associations and technology vendors.

Innovation

A lot of what I’ve touched upon so far is about managing technical and organisational debt. About playing catch up for problems that younger businesses and startups have the luxury of not having to deal with.

Whilst we’re trying to sort out the immediate challenges of today we could easily miss the emerging opportunities for doing things in an entirely different way.

Who’s peering deep into the horizon and working on the seemingly crazy moonshot ideas? Who’s thinking about totally new operating models for the rapid delivery of radically affordable housing?

I feel like we’ve been talking about ‘the Uber of Housing’ forever. But perhaps it’s never been less hypothetical than it is right now. With a housing market that is largely inaccessible for an increasing number of people, conditions are perfect for a venture capital backed company to swoop into the marketplace and deliver a product that undercuts everyone else, hoovering up huge amounts of money in the process that will disappear off into a tax haven.

If you’re thinking that nobody could replace the range of services and social value that Housing Associations deliver, you may well be right. But then consider whether some people would be quite happy to opt for a no-frills solution to low cost housing if their rent was effectively halved.

Imagine an AirBnB for rental lettings. The accommodation is basic, the service is minimal and so is the customer support, but you might be tempted to make the trade off if it means you’ve got spare money to feed your family and buy school uniform for the start of term. These are the stark choices that people are having to make in the current climate of austerity. And that’s before we really understand the impending impact of Brexit on Wales.

Is there a need for a centrally funded innovation lab that works to test new ideas and actively disrupt the current model of social housing? I think it’s a tempting idea. Richard Sage previously speculated that social housing could benefit from a ‘skunkworks’. A multi-disciplinary team of people that explores the real possibilities for the future of Housing Associations.

I do worry about duplication of effort here though. Wales already has an innovation lab for public services in the form of YLab. Over the border, the Bromford Lab team have been working for some time embed innovation in social housing delivery. I’ve also seen some really interesting stuff coming out of Impact Hub Brum.

If we did go down the road of a Welsh Social Housing Innovation Lab, I’d really like to see it operate in a totally open and collaborative manner, working with established innovation networks and change makers who are already out in the world trying to do stuff.

I think it will really live and die on how quickly and cheaply it can work its way through prototyping solutions to well defined problems, and how much value it can demonstrate and deliver to those who might bank roll it.

Internet of Things

On the face of it, it seems like putting Internet connected sensors in things could really help Housing Associations proactively report issues in properties. The common example of boilers reporting faults before the tenant has even noticed there’s an issue.

I’ve got an Alexa in my house. It automates our home. I’m willing trade some of my personal privacy (the data it’s collecting about me and my behavioural patterns) in return for the convenience of the service. I have consciously made that choice. I think we have to ensure that our tenants are also clear about the choice that’s being made in return for convenience or cost savings (identifying who’s convenience and cost savings is also key).

I think it’s important to recognise that the most affordable smart devices are driven by consumer companies that are competing with one another in the same space. It’s not always in Amazon’s best commercial interest to ensure it works with Google’s products and services.

Because of this I don’t think you can bank on long term support for any integrations, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from experimenting with the technology in a cheap & safe manner. Even if Google is crowned eventual winner of the smart home and we have to bin all our custom made Alexa integrations, there’s a lot of valuable learning to be extracted along the way that will be applicable elsewhere.

So… where do we go from ‘here’?

Everyone’s interpretations of what ‘here’ is will vary depending on the size and capabilities of your organisation. Some Housing Associations have outsourced their technology functions, other have large in-house IT and Design teams with the ability to build their own systems. Some have tens of staff, others have hundreds or thousands. Because of this, I think it’s difficult to be really prescriptive about the way forward, since forward looks very different to each organisation.

Here are my very broad suggestions of what might work regardless of where you’re setting off on the digital maturity curve.

  • Be militantly optimistic. Paint a vision of the future that’s better than today and keep telling people about it. Find small practical steps you can take to march towards that vision. Experiment, learn and iterate. Be the change you want to see in the world. Model the behaviour for others.
  • Work out loud. Share what you’ve done and what you’re doing. Where you can’t share specifics, share the wider learning. Lead with generosity. Save someone else the effort of reinventing the wheel. Seek out fellow change makers and allies. Don’t be afraid to venture outside the sphere of social housing. Network!
  • Lower the barrier for participation. If we want more widely distributed digital leadership skills, we’re going to need to attract people outside the usual technology roles. That might mean doing things a bit differently like hosting or streaming talks, or doing morning coffee meetups, or recording podcasts, or openly publishing blog posts, or posting stuff on Twitter/Facebook.

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