The Stack Archive Feature

The digital struggles of the housing association industry

Tue 14 Nov 2017

Housing associations, hit by welfare reform and government cuts, are lagging behind other industries in terms of digital transformation and are struggling to catch up, research has shown.

A report by Phoenix Software and VMware, which surveyed employees from housing associations around the UK, has shown how these organisations are finding it challenging to keep up with digital trends and benefit from the opportunities they offer.

There are currently 1174 housing associations operating in the UK, providing accommodation to local councils for those on low incomes or who need extra support. However, issues such as social housing fraud, which the University of Portsmouth estimates is costing the UK £1.76 billion a year, are making it increasingly harder to provide the right service to citizens in need.

The true cost of falling behind

Smart investments in technology could be key to addressing some of these hurdles, by allowing associations to streamline processes, save money, and improve services. A digital strategy would also allow them to improve the way homes are designed and create better lines of communication.

The industry is in need of smart technology investment, with government austerity cuts severely impacting the sector.

The Phoenix report revealed the extent to which housing associations struggle, particularly with making good use of the data they receive – both in terms of storage and analysis. A massive 75% of those polled do not believe their organisation is capable of effectively using the information it stores. A fifth thought that their current capabilities needed a refresh within the next year.

Continued use of IT environments that aren’t capable of adequate storage or management has potential to stunt growth, but could also accentuate risk

The ability to store, manage and use data more effectively could help to minimise errors and ensure that funding is given to those who need it rather than fraudsters. Effective use of data is set to become increasingly important to the sector as IoT makes its way into the industry, where it can be extremely effective for remote monitoring and security.

Sensors, data and analysis

Sector sales manager for housing associations at Phoenix Software, Greg Dean, noted the importance of keeping up with these types of technologies: “As digital transformation and the use of smart sensors in properties becomes more commonplace, it will be even more crucial to have the capabilities to assess and manage data on things such as repairs in the home, maintenance of areas shared with neighbours and care services.”

“Continued use of IT environments that aren’t capable of adequate storage or management has potential to stunt growth, but could also accentuate risk.”

Additionally, effective data analysis can help improve forecasting for the planning and delivery of services, which in turn reduces time and money, as well as improving interactions between citizens and suppliers.

As is often the case, technology of this type could help to free up staff hours so they can provide a better service. Carolyn Brown, CTO of the National Housing Federation, said: “Being able to free up housing association staffs’ time through automated and more efficient service delivery in some areas means that housing associations can be more proactive in other areas of service to customers.”

Those in the housing association industry are aware that the sector is in need of digital innovation. There have been attempts to aggregate basic cost and performance analytics, and the Housing and Charitable Trust (HACT) tried a large-scale project taking data from housing providers and attempting to glean insight from it. Unfortunately, according to HACT CEO, Matt Leach, it was soon discovered that housing data was “a mess”, with Leach commenting that the problems HACT faced were common to the sector as a whole; unusable data, poorly maintained and expensive to make sense of.

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It may not come as a surprise, then, that 43% of respondents to the survey found that one of their major challenges was not necessarily the collection of data, but rather the control of that which they had at their disposal.

Universal credit, the system through which multiple welfare payments get condensed into one monthly sum, has caused serious difficulties for those in the industry, as they struggle to manage payments. It means a need to communicate more often, more carefully, and manage an increasing number of rent payments directly. The findings of the report show that many housing associations have struggled to come to terms with this.

Building a digital future

How can moving into the digital age help solve some of these multiple problems? An obvious example is mobility. If workers are equipped with the necessary applications or software to work remotely, they are then able to relay information quickly and easily, improving communication and saving time.

It’s important to remember the sensitivity of the data that is dealt with in the industry, requiring a strong compliance program. A 2014 report for the Information Commissioner’s Office advised on the protection of data, through means such as encryption, passwords and kill codes, as well as privilege systems.

Since then, storage and server technologies that meet these requirements have evolved. These fit within a multi-cloud environment, supporting a range of applications that can be accessed securely. Dean argues that modern tools can go one further, arguing the need for enhanced compliance through automation.

The housing association sector performs a key role in society, and whichever side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, it is important that following changes such as the introduction of Universal Credit, the industry can keep up and properly serve citizens.

As Dean states: “It’s vital that housing associations make the right IT decisions today, so they can plan effectively for tomorrow.”


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