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It’s time to address data challenges in social housing

According to a new report, data could hold the key to delivering a better customer experience and higher-quality services.
Dr SImon Williams

Today, data plays a fundamental role in every aspect of our modern lives. And the same is true of the social housing sector. Yet, despite its importance, landlords continue to face challenges when it comes to gathering, updating and managing data.

As we’ve seen, the consequences of failing to track this information adequately can be severe. After all, without accurate, well-maintained data systems landlords are more likely to make mistakes or miss key issues that might impact their tenants.

It was no surprise then that research by the Housing Ombudsman (May 2023) found that poor knowledge and information management was a recurrent theme and a key contributor to landlords that fail to provide adequate services. Indeed, the vast majority (82%) of those questioned for the report admitted to facing issues accessing reports, and three quarters (75%) revealed that they faced problems with their existing data storage systems.

The scale of the problem is clear, but what exactly are the data challenges that face social housing and what can we do to fix them? Those are the questions I set out to answer with the help of my research partner, data services provider BCN, in a new report which spoke directly to social housing employees to gather their perspective on the issues, challenges and opportunities that data creates.

Why is data so important?

As service-based organisations increasingly rely on digitised services, data has become a crucial resource. For social housing landlords, data forms the backbone of modern service delivery, providing invaluable insight into the challenges and opportunities that tenants are faced with.

By maximising the use of technology within social housing we can make better decisions and drive key customer service improvements. We can also help to eliminate errors, both micro and macro, by ensuring that vital information is consolidated, cross-referenced and connected.

Finally, data is also a vital tool for organisations looking to future-proof their operations. Through advancements in artificial intelligence, we’re entering a new era of insight and service productivity. The future for the social housing sector is bright, but only if it is armed with the high-quality data that are needed to fuel these new tools and technologies.

For landlords working in the social housing sector, common sense suggests that the two most fundamental sources of information required to underpin consistently high levels of service quality are property-based and tenant-based information.

Yet how good is the sector at gathering, updating, and applying this data as a basis for delivering quality services? Could better data quality be a factor in improving both customer experience and operations management performance measures such as quality, speed, dependability, flexibility, and cost?

And are some social housing providers so far behind the curve on effectively applying technology and information management that the approaches they use in practice are holding them back from delivering quality services?

Stephen Batley, Assistant Director of Business Improvement, Together Housing Group:

“At this time, no one needs convincing about the power of data, phrases like “data-driven decisions” and “data is the new oil” are so well used they’ve almost become a cliché. Maybe the social housing sector has been slower than some to wake up to this reality but our eyes are now wide open and we’re embracing data to give new insights in order that we can meet customer needs and build sustainable homes and communities.

The research by Dr. Simon Williams at Service Insights Ltd and the final report shows this appetite but it also shows that organisations are at different places on the journey. Many are data-rich and insight poor; some of the data is isolated in silos.”

The challenges facing the social housing sector

Based on survey responses and employee interviews from seven core housing management functions, the report explored how data is currently being used in the sector and how it is impacting the day-to-day operations of the people who work within it.

While some housing providers were further advanced than others in their journey towards digitisation, the pervading message was that data challenges are the norm for sector workers and that they fundamentally remain unchallenged.

The issues are all-encompassing, but during my conversations with frontline workers five key challenges emerged:

Approaches to data quality are not fulfilling employee needs

Whilst employees recognised that data quality is essential for achieving operational and strategic aims, they felt that current approaches are not helping them deliver service efficiencies nor making their jobs easier – a key objective of technology solutions.

Current applications of technology may be acting as barriers to delivering good service

Data systems, their complexities, limitations, and the need for effective data management were recurrent themes that are holding employees back. Overall, siloed data was a common challenge and concern of employees, one that is significantly impacting upon service quality. Indeed, many flagged that the greatest opportunity to improve data quality was to better integrate their existing systems.

The impacts of poor data quality are far-reaching

Poor data quality was detectable across all seven core housing management functions covered in our study. Across all levels of seniority and all sizes of organisation, there was a concerning consensus that poor quality data was directly leading to poor decision-making and impacting on service outcomes.

Poor data needs to be turned into good data, and good data into good practice

Addressing the joint issues of siloed or poor quality is just one of the issues the sector faces. As we increasingly turn towards digitisation employees also face the longer-term challenge of how to turn good data into good practice and effectively apply it across their organisation.

Social housing providers need to prepare for a new era of productivity

Good data is the fuel that drives AI tools and technologies. As we look to the future there’s concern that those who are currently behind the innovation curve will be cut adrift. Not only will this impact social housing landlords but the tenants they serve, as data inequalities create a “digital poorhouse.”

Jovian Smalley, IG Manager & Group DPO, WCHG / Co-Chair, GMHP Data & IG Group, Nena Adrienne, Data & Insight Manager, WCHG / Co-Chair, GMHP Data & IG Group:

“The GMHP (Greater Manchester Housing Providers) Data and IG Group (Information Governance) welcomes Service Insight’s report into data challenges for social housing providers.

The Group has worked to share sector best practice and source illustrative case studies from Registered Providers across Greater Manchester, culminating in 2023 with the launch of our first ever Data Management Framework for the city region. This is the first step towards the ambition of a ‘sector-wide data strategy’, crucial in the face of increasing demand on services and the rapid automation of processes.”

What can be done to overcome data challenges?
While the challenges in the social housing sector are numerous, there are steps that can be taken to address them and ensure that data is a strength for organisations and not a weakness.

1 – Address siloed data – The message that’s coming through loud and clear from social housing employees is that there’s an urgent need for a unified approach that consolidates data from various sources and departments into one simplified system. By applying architectural approaches such as a ’data fabric’ method, data can be streamlined and silos addressed.

2 – Improve data quality – Social housing providers urgently need to improve the quality of data that they currently hold on both tenants and landlords. This is driven not only by the need to improve current systems but plan for a future where the adoption of emerging AI technologies will make data truly essential.

3 – Embed the importance of data into organisational culture – Data is often sidelined in favour of concerns that are ostensibly more pressing. But if we’re truly going to move the needle it has to become a priority that’s embedded into the culture of social housing providers.

4 – Ensure behaviour drives systems, not systems driving behaviour – The potential impact of data is clear, but when it comes to social housing we can’t lose sight of the human element. The sector must strike a balance between digital and human to ensure that vulnerable tenants are not ‘lost in the system’ simply because they do not fit standard parameters defined by technological applications.

5 – It’s time for a sector-wide strategy – As part of this research, one employee noted that, “Demands on social housing are increasing, data is becoming more important… maybe it’s time we need a sector-wide data strategy?” Due to the similarities between social landlords, standardised practices could offer a solution to implement better data management at scale.

A challenge, but also an opportunity

For too long data has been neglected, creating many of the challenges we see in the social housing sector today. It’s vital that providers take steps to address these issues, not only to better serve their tenants today but to build for tomorrow. With the emergence of AI-powered tools data will play a key role in the future of social housing. By taking steps now providers can lay the foundations that unlock data-driven opportunities well into the future.

Joel Adams, Social Housing Sector Lead, BCN:

“While the data challenge for many social housing providers is complex, those that are taking steps to solve the issue are seeing transformational results – improving efficiency and service for tenants, while gaining access to the insights that are so crucial to more effective decision making.”

Follow this link to find the full report: :  https://bcn.co.uk/data-and-analytics/exclusive-new-research-data-challenges-in-social-housing/?utm_source=housing_exec&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=bcnhsr 

 

 

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