'Residents know what the problems are – because they experience them'
Resident involvement is a core part of how an effective housing association should be run, Optivo chief executive Paul Hackett argues ahead of his session on tenant empowerment at Total Housing 2019.
In my thirty years in social housing, I’ve watched with interest the waxing and waning of ideas on tenant empowerment. We’ve had periods where engaging residents has been the ‘in-thing’, generating lots of excitement, discussion, investment and innovation. And, if we’re honest, there’ve been plenty of other times as a sector where other aspects of policy and practice have been seen to be more exciting, and working with our residents has slipped down the agenda.
For me, working in a meaningful way with the people we house isn’t something we should only think about when it’s in vogue. Instead, resident involvement is a core part of how an effective housing association should be run.
Rather than asking whether housing associations should work closely with residents, I ask my colleagues ‘why would we not?’ Optivo houses 90,000 people. Why wouldn’t we want to enlist the help of experts on the services we provide? People who are emotionally invested in their communities – and people who are being asked to do more of the work as the sector transitions to online and self-service models?
The insights our residents offer bring so much value. And with the absence of market signals we need to work hard to get feedback on what our residents actually value. In the private sector bad management decisions are felt the next day in the cash register. Social landlords need other ways to understand whether we’re serving our customers in the most efficient and effective way.
Residents know what the problems are – because they experience them. Our residents often have astute ideas about what we could do better, or faster, or cheaper, because they see first-hand what could be improved. And our residents keep us grounded – they’re forthright in letting us know whether the latest exciting ideas we develop are actually worth pursuing, or just a distraction from what they really value.
When done well, resident involvement doesn’t take colleagues away from the day jobs, instead it enables our people to do the day job better.
Making this meaningful for staff and residents means recognising the fundamental shift that effective involvement requires. My experience at Optivo has taught me that genuine tenant empowerment only starts to happen when you have the right leadership and you’ve built a supportive culture.
Leadership is key – colleagues need to know that putting residents at the heart of what we do starts at the top, with our board. That sets a strong strategic priority, but as our board includes residents, it also models the inclusive behaviour we want to see throughout Optivo.
This leadership is about building a positive culture where colleagues genuinely believe in the importance of resident involvement. At Optivo we drive this through our ‘one team’ ethos – the idea that our board, staff and residents should work in partnership to run the organisation. That’s critical to really reaping the rewards of working with residents, it’s not a side-project. We involve residents in procurement decisions, contract monitoring, the design of our homes, scrutinising repairs performance, commenting on new policies - we’ve worked hard to embed working as one team as the default approach.
I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find a housing association that doesn’t agree that staff engagement is essential to developing a corporate plan. At Optivo we believe the same is true of residents. We want residents as well as colleagues to feel ownership for our direction of travel and to be part of the ‘golden thread’.
We need to work much harder on leadership and culture at national level too. That’s why I’ve been an active member of the National Housing Federation’s ‘Together with Tenants’ steering group. This work, which has involved housing associations from across the country, calls for a number of important changes to improve tenant empowerment. To strengthen leadership, we want the NHF governance code to set much clearer responsibilities for boards, so that tenant involvement is championed from the very top. We’re calling for housing associations to sign up to a charter, committing to take practical steps to embed principles of engagement throughout their work. And crucially, tenants themselves must be involved. We can only know if these changes are working if we’re hearing directly from tenants. So it’s also proposed that tenants will play an important role in assessing the extent to which their association is implementing the charter.
These steps will make a big difference, but they’re very much the start. We all need to think hard about how resident involvement catches up with the digital nature of our residents’ lives. We need to be more creative in making sure younger residents’ voices are properly heard. And we need to ensure that resident involvement brings in wider and more diverse groups of people, not just the usual participants.
I’m really looking forward to discussing these issues at this year’s CIH Total Housing conference in Brighton.
- Total Housing 2019 takes place in Brighton on 6-7 March. Paul will be discussing tenant empowerment on day one in The big picture theatre. Find out more and book your place