Thursday, 20 August 2015

Pride – in the name of respect

Signing the #NoBystanders pledge

Earlier this month I was amazed and humbled to read about the gay pride rally in Uganda, a country where homosexuality is still illegal and homophobia is widespread.

Despite facing up to 14 years in prison, as well as potential violence, due to their sexual orientation, about 100 people marched in the parade. Their message was clear, they wanted to celebrate who they are and make a stand against discrimination.

When you consider how many countries have seen the sense to legalise same-sex marriages, and how the people of Ireland voted to legalise gay marriage in a referendum, it’s astounding to know that to be gay is still illegal in other countries around the world.
I’m happy that, here in England, we’ve moved on and it’s a far cry from the situation in Uganda. But, there is a but, I still think there is more for us to do. Homosexuality may not be illegal, but homophobia still exists and in particular I believe there is a lot to do to counter transphobia.

At Wolverhampton Homes, we’re working hard to make our organisation a place where anyone can feel comfortable and proud to be themselves, whether they be L, G, B or T and I think we’re really getting there. Our Proud to be Me Network has already helped us gain the 140th position in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers list. We may not be in the top 100 but we were the fastest rising stars last year. To be 140th out of 397, in our first year was a huge achievement. I’m so proud of the work my colleagues have done so far and of what they’ve got planned for the future.

Later this year, all of our staff will take part in our “Respect” training course. This is a training session created and facilitated by our Proud to be Me Network members, they even act in the video clips. They wanted to produce a course to help colleagues understand that every one of us plays a part in ensuring that we are respectful to each other and that it’s up to all of us to challenge anything that could be disrespectful. Earlier this year, a lot of our colleagues and Board members signed the #NoBystanders pledge, we hope that by the end of the course, everyone will sign it.  

The Respect Training course is just one in a long list of wonderful projects that the Proud to be Me Network have been involved in. The passion and commitment of each and every one of the Proud to be Me Network is so clear to see. You can follow what they’re doing on their own blog and if you’d like to chat to them about their work, they’d love to hear from you.

The Proud to be Me Network are determined to continue their work towards being completely LGBT friendly, and with Uganda still on my mind, I’ll ensure that I help them in any way I can.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Delivering digital - why we need a message which resonates

This month I've invited Jamie Angus, he's our Head of Communications to share his thoughts about why we need to be getting more people using the internet...
Jamie Angus
Last week saw the publication, probably for the first time, of a detailed state of play of the UK housing sector when it comes to delivering digital services.
All-in-all it doesn’t make for great reading in terms of the sector’s success of transforming service delivery in the digital age. Yet if you read the bloggersphere and believe the hype of the Twitteratti you’d think that the Jetsons’ hovercrafts were just weeks away.

The reality, which the self service report draws out, is that clunky IT systems, a lack of credible data on accessibility for tenants and a reluctance to promote a service which is far from Amazon-standard is holding us back.

But what strikes me the most is that as a sector we still haven’t nailed down why we’re doing this. We haven’t constructed the narrative as to why this is so important.
It reminds me of a great blog by Kate Bentham (@katebentham) where she refers to Channel Shove rather than Channel Shift.

We’ve all seen the transactional costs data and in a time where financially, we’re scrambling to strangle the last drop of value from every penny spent, we can see why online is such an attractive proposition. But if you go to any estate in Wolverhampton, or indeed any estate across the country, and tell tenants that going online is great – it’ll save us a fortune, then you can probably guess what most reactions will be. And this feels like the challenge we’re grappling with.

But the truth is, and this is the message which needs to resonate with tenants, they risk getting left behind if they’re not online. With Universal Credit on the horizon it’s never been more important that tenants, especially those of working age, get ready by being online. The stark reality could well be that no internet access equals no Universal Credit payment. I of course over simplify, but when you think about the message of missing out, it fits better with the raison d’etre of social housing. By not being online, tenants are missing out on job opportunities, financial savings, better energy deals, the chance to connect with friends and family. All of a sudden, the digital agenda ticks the moral boxes of financial and social inclusion, fuel poverty and social mobility.

????????????????????????????????????At Wolverhampton Homes we’ve been grappling with the challenges of Channel Shift. It’s been an uncomfortable process but we’re making progress. And, in fact, although we may not have shouted the loudest, our statistics are credible and show we’re up there. The Yorkshire Housing report pretty much states there are no real pioneers yet. Yes, some are better than others at promoting it, but as a sector, we’re still finding our feet – but think of the potential if we all worked together to nail this.

In Wolverhampton, with a tenant-base of 23,000 – nearly 6,000 are signed up to our do-it-online account. Last month, we had nearly 1,000 active users logging-in to either make a payment, change their details or book a repair. Interestingly, our repairs booking system (although it’s far from perfect) is fully automated into our back office systems and allows tenants to pick a time which suits them. No e-forms which go to a customer service advisor to manually input; it’s fully automated self-service.
But we know that for most people they’d still pick up the phone. As proud as we are of our website and its mobile-responsive design, booking a repair online isn’t sexy enough to drive thousands of tenants there.
But the challenge isn’t so much getting people to report repairs online; that should come later. Just being online is the key. People won’t come to our websites excited by the fact that the internet means they can book repairs or update their personal details. But they will be excited when they’re saving money, switching energy suppliers, helping their kids with their homework and applying for jobs and training. But that’s not a message we can deliver on our own – so we’re looking to work with schools and businesses in the city to promote that message too.

It’s a long digital road ahead, and although the technology will no doubt improve, if we can’t win the hearts and minds of tenants and colleagues then it’s going to be an arduous journey.

But we can and will win the debate, we have to, our tenants have got too much to lose if we don’t.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Universal Credit - a bit like England losing on penalties

Mark Hendeson, Director of Housing at Wolverhampton Homes

Every so often it's nice to get the views and opinions of other people on my blog so I'm handing over the reins today to my Director of Housing, Mark Henderson - and he's already talking about football!

Preparing for Universal Credit over the past eighteen months or so has felt a little bit like England losing on penalties to Germany – it’s an inevitability; it will happen in the future; we’re just not too sure when.

So earlier this week when it was announced that we’ll be part of the final tranche of West Midlands authorities transferring over, there was a strange element of relief that at least we now know.

For some time now we’ve been bombarding our staff and our tenants with the message that Universal Credit is on the horizon - it’s on its way! But it’s a tough sell when you can’t say for definite when. The definition of ‘Coming Soon’ has been stretched somewhat – given that the start for new, single person claimants in Wolverhampton will be sometime between December 2015 and April 2016. 

But despite the frustrations of not knowing exactly when this is happening – what it does do is provide us with an opportunity. We’ve got a little bit more time than most to prepare as best we can. Unlike the under-occupancy charge where we had data and knew 90% of those who were likely to be affected; with Universal Credit it’s much harder. The first claimants of ours may not even be tenants at the moment and could well be in work and not claiming a penny of benefits right now.

What we do know though is that eventually, as claims for other benefits such as Job seekers allowance and tax credits are closed, around 1 in 3 tenants – that’s 8,500 – will end up transferring to Universal Credit; that’s a logistically tough challenge (and a huge business risk).

So without knowing who our first Universal Credit applicants will be, being focussed and targeted is tricky. What we can do though is set out three clear messages:

1) You need to be online
2) You need a bank or credit union account
3) You need to put a bit aside each month in preparation for Universal Credit being paid monthly.

For how long can you say 'coming soon'?
But what we do have already is buy-in from across the company. Colleagues know how this could impact our customers and our business so we’re drawing Universal Credit champions from tenants, staff members and customers alike to make sure that we’re as ready as we can be. And as part of our preparation, where customers may struggle, we’ll be encouraging them to apply for a short-term benefits advance, to give a buffer, and not allow arrears to build up, in advance of their first Universal Credit payment.

We’re also working with our neighbouring authorities – and that’s key. It’s like a Universal Credit self-help group. But aside from the opportunity to vent frustrations - it’s actually a really useful way of learning, sharing ideas and building effective networks.

We’re also re-focussing our business objectives. More than 5,000 tenants are signed up to our do-it-online account and we’re making a big push to get more and more services accessible through our website. No doubt mobile-apps and so on will follow – the next two or three years will see a revolution in housing terms when it comes to technology, of that I’m sure.

Employability is right at the top of the agenda too. We’re already linking in with local job clubs and utilising our double-award winning LEAP apprenticeship programme to get more tenants ready to get back into work and training.

But to a degree there’s only so much preparation you can do. At some stage you just need to get your head down and get on with it and see what quirks the new system will throw up.

But – with an election on the horizon – maybe there will be some tweaks and changes before our live date. The NFA’s call this week for payments to go directly to landlords for those tenants who’d prefer it to is a sensible suggestion. After all, individual choice is important – and if a direct payment to landlords is the best way for them to make sure their rent is paid and their home is secured, then surely that’s a win-win all round?

Whatever happens in the next 12 months – we’ll be as ready as we can be.