Q & A with Matt Leach: Using technology to reinvent the housing association sector

Matt Leach_croppedMatt Leach, chief executive of Hact, joined the housing sector at a time of huge change. He talks to New Start about how technology is helping social housing providers understand their social value as well as maintain their bottom line

What are the key challenges – and solutions – for housing providers currently?
The truth is we need to reinvent everything. The money that was there isn’t there and the communities that are most excluded are going to be even more excluded. Housing providers can’t rely on security of payments, individuals can’t rely on the benefits they expected in the past and we can only deal with that if we reinvent things totally. The values that have always driven the sector need to be reasserted. A lot of the ethos and energy that came out of the 60s and 70s – when perhaps government was less active and housing was freer to innovate – needs to be captured. What’s most important is grabbing the need to innovate in ways that release the benefits to communities and society as a whole. There’s a huge world of data innovation. The things you can do now you couldn’t do last year and if the only people benefiting from new technology are Facebook and Twitter then we are failing our people. If we think adapting to new technology is just about building a social media channel to engage residents, then we are failing them. There’s a whole world of reinvention. At Hact we’re moving into looking at data and technology as incredibly important things for housing providers to get on top of. If it’s new and cutting edge and making a difference we’re diving in and having a play.

Data and technology are incredibly important

things for housing providers to get on top of

One of the new technologies you’ve introduced is a mapping tool. How is it helping housing providers?
We started thinking about the major barriers preventing community investment professionals in housing organisations having the most effective impact on their localities. It was often an absence of information to help them deliver the biggest impact. Traditionally community focused staff in housing providers haven’t had the same data-focused tools as those responsible for housing assets. They haven’t had much in way of back office support and systems and when it came to accessing data they often got it from local authorities, which are increasingly not maintaining or sharing it due to cutbacks.

So in summer 2012 we partnered with OCSI and built Community Insight – an attempt to create a lightweight community-focused GIS. It’s the first professional data tool for community investment professionals in the housing sector. It allows you access data on any number of things at the press of a button. You can look at where the worst distribution of illness is in an area in order to target a community health initiative. It allows you to pick any neighbourhood and find other housing providers in that area. You can compare areas and do a neighbourhood resilience chart. It creates a 50-page community profile report that includes all sorts of data – from demographics and gender distribution to house prices and child poverty levels. In the past it would take weeks to find this data. We’ve had 70 housing associations subscribe and they are using it to drive and focus their community investment.

In March we launch a companion product – Value Insight –  which will allow housing providers to put all of their facilities onto a map and do live social value mapping. It will say tell you the social value you create through your projects and the return on investment. It can also grab your payroll and procurement data and map your direct impact on the local economy.

social impactWhy do housing providers need to show their social value?
Housing providers have a minimum amount of money to spend and want maximum impact. If you have no idea of the difference you’re making in people’s lives you’re wasting resources. Housing providers use social return on investment tools but the conventional tools that are out there are not adequate for large multi-purpose organisations.  In February last year we published a document called The Social Impact of Housing Providers, which takes a key approach government uses to understand the impact of its social programmes – wellbeing valuation – and applies it to the housing sector. That report started to set out an outline methodology for helping understand the impact of different bricks and mortar investment decisions.  And this week we’ve followed that up with a new publication  which provides insight into the relative social value created by community investment activities, for example volunteering, employment or community health. Critically, both use a consistent approach, and hopefully – over time – we’ll be able to develop much more sophisticated ways of understanding the relative values of investment in bricks and mortar and more community focused activity.  We’ve been working closely with Affinity Sutton and Catalyst on our most recent report  – and our long term ambition is to to better enable all housing providers to develop a holistic view of the total value they create as organisations. It’s about strategically understanding the impact an organisation is having, something that is increasingly important as regulators start to focus on the value for money of all aspects of housing providers’ activities, including the social value they create.

You’re about to start piloting a big data service for housing providers
Yes, over the last six months we’ve been building an ultra secure cloud-based framework for housing providers to share all their key housing data, with help from Microsoft and others. Housing providers don’t necessarily get as much value from the data as they might, not because they don’t want to, but because even the biggest have a comparable customer base to a single high street supermarket, whilst supermarkets are analysing data from hundreds of shops and millions of transactions in order to understand and improve customer experience. We’re bringing together data that has never been shared in this way before and the potential is exciting. We’ve started this week on analysis of the first pooled data, and our aim over coming months is to investigate key issues, such as what are the major risk factors of a house of a certain type, or to develop propensity models in relation to repairs, maintenance, and arrears outcomes. You might not be able to do this if you look at one home in context of 10,000 of your own but in the context of similar homes across half a million properties you can start to see ways of doing that. We’ll have 500,000 homes worth of data online by mid-April and are hoping that, if the early piloting works, we can do something more generally with the housing sector in the second half of this year.

How can this data be used to improve services?
We’re getting more and more interested in customer satisfaction and its relationship to wellbeing.  It does seem bizarre that housing providers are judged on whether tenants are satisfied with them, on the basis of periodic surveys. But much less consideration is given to the extent to which residents are satisfied with their lives, and to which housing providers are enabling them to live full and satisfied lives. We’re about to work with a large housing provider on this, amending their resident survey in a way that puts at its heart questions of life satisfaction. The aim is to develop ways which will help housing providers to find out which of their neighbourhoods have the highest levels of life satisfaction and what are the issues within their control that could improve that.  Its very much experimental work, but also important in that it very much complements and underpins our approach to social value.

Comm Insight image largeWhat will housing providers look like in five years?
Increasingly they will integrate homes into housing management systems that provide a better living environment, with all repairs delivered on a predictive basis, and everything managed for them. We’re working with University College London on a platform for next generation housing concepts. Many social homes are already much more energy efficient than those in the private sector. With the opportunities offered by the scale of the sector and new technologies, housing associations will provides homes that many will aspire to. The resources saved by providing a much better standard of service will go into supporting those that need it or invested into communities. That provides a social return to the community and a financial return to the housing provider. Understanding the interaction between social and financial will become a big thing very soon.

Should housing providers be taking on a broader remit within their neighbourhoods?
Undoubtedly there are housing providers in some areas delivering and investing in communities, but what’s driving that is less a wish to go with the flow of

A few years ago we talked about value driving things

but now it’s the business of the organisation that’s the driver.

localism or a response to an upswell of desire and capacity, but a growing focus around organisational bottom line. A few years ago organisations were dealing with unemployed people because it was a good thing to do. It wasn’t always targeted but there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for that. I guess we’ve seen a hardening of focus among housing providers. If you talk to housing providers in the north west of England that are hard-pressed by welfare reform, they’re asking: how does working with unemployed people contribute to our bottom line?

A few years ago we talked about value driving things but now it’s the business of the organisation that’s driving things. It’s a different set of motivations. Halton Housing for example is engaging in a very aggressive digitalisation strategy, rethinking the way in which it delivers services to residents because, if it doesn’t, it won’t be able to afford to pay for tenancy support for the most vulnerable and if they can’t support the most vulnerable these will fall into arrears and that affects their long-term bottom line.

Housing providers are still organisations with an incredibly strong value base but what’s been changing is the sort of tools and organisational structures and approaches they need to develop to sustain and maintain those values.



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