Five steps to delivering digital services in the housing sector

The Government has set out its ambition to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% this year, and a further 25% each year for the following two years. In addition, it is aiming for 80% of Universal Credit applications to be made online by 2017. The drive to get more people online and using digital public services was a key topic of discussion at the recent Civica Expo, with a series of panel discussions attended by key figures from the social housing sector discussing the need to deliver a new and personalised experience for citizens, improve efficiencies and enhance the quality of services to meet the demands of the digital era.

The general conclusion was that the move towards a digital first culture in housing is beginning to see progress, as the technology to do so is there; but implementation and adoption rates still vary dramatically between different associations.

While many housing authorities now have online rent portals in place, usage is low and they are often seen as an information site rather than anything else. During a panel discussion on the future of technology in housing, high levels of tenants still visiting the office for face to face communication were noted, and with levels of use of online tenant portals as low as 5%.

Meanwhile, many front-end housing websites are moving to a self-service model where tenants can access their rent statements, report the need for repairs and log other issues. However, in some cases, the back office is still yet to fully integrate with the front end so there is still a manual element meaning that the impact on business efficiency is not yet being felt.

Advances in technology and automation, the proliferation of devices and communication channels, and the greater availability of data for a 24/7 on-demand public is changing everything for all of us.

It is clear there is still work to be done to ensure that digital services are being used to their full potential and to get communities up to speed with the benefits that digital services provide. Some housing associations have even stated that they aim to eradicate letters altogether within the next three years, which certainly sounds ambitious. But what are the steps that housing associations need to take to embrace the current digital revolution?

1. Understand your community: Housing associations are having to cater to an increasingly diverse audience. From the digitally-native Generation Z (born 1995 – 2012) - who will soon start becoming Tenant Z - to the UK’s growing elderly population – some of whom have never accessed the internet before. First and foremost, organisations must gain an understanding of what generational and digital mix their community is made up of so they can tailor services appropriately.

2. Be inclusive: Once the needs of the community have been established then associations can set about closing the gaps, either by developing and launching new services tailored to suit specific demographical needs i.e. a telephone translation service for tenants who don’t speak English or working towards digital inclusion. As digital services are considerably more efficient and cost-effective to run, it’s often preferable for organisations to find ways to remove barriers to internet use among the digitally illiterate and develop online services that are safe and easy to use. One housing association at the Civica Expo discussion explained how it had conducted a digital inclusion survey in its local area to find out how many people were using digital services and what the appetite was like in the area for online training. Training was then provided to people in their community who showed a desire to learn how to use the internet and digital services. Findings from the digital inclusion survey also showed that more people are using smartphones and tablets to access digital services, rather than laptops and computers. This led the organisation to adapt their training methods to reflect this growing trend.

3. Effective marketing and communication: While having the right technology in place is crucial, effective marketing and communication to let your community know you’ve invested in new digital channels or services is important if they are to actually be used. Last autumn, Sentinel Housing Association launched its UK online centre with an event, social media and blog activity. Meanwhile Hounslow Council recently launched a new ‘Find My Nearest’ online tool to help people locate their nearest schools, libraries, leisure centres and police stations. They raised awareness of the service with PR, banners on their homepage and within their e-newsletter. Without this kind of supporting activity, organisations will inevitably find that they have invested considerable money in cutting-edge technology but uptake of services will be low.

4. Strong leadership: For any effective change to take hold in an organisation it requires innovative leaders to drive change forward and win the hearts and minds of staff. Our upcoming ‘Invigorating the Public Sector Revolution’ report, written in partnership with Solace and launching next week, looks at organisational leaders and how they can empower the wider workforce to create a structure that supports and drives transformation.

5. Back office technology to manage the frontline: Frontline staff should be encouraged to spend as much time as possible out in the community, listening to peoples’ concerns and encouraging them to use digital services. Mobile and back office technology is increasingly helping frontline staff manage their caseload on the go, while staying connected and keeping up with developments in the office – particularly those which offer integrated customer relationship management and communication capabilities, and can flex to capitalise rapidly on new technology.

With the cost of digital decreasing for both consumers and organisations and user demand for instant and efficient services and continued cost-savings by central government increasing – the case to embrace and encourage digital services in the housing sector is increasingly robust. Now is the time to invest or else risk being left behind.