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Commercialism and social housing – and other things we are scared of

By Anna O’Halloran,  Consultancy Managing Director

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a conference all about commercialism in housing, well that’s what it was called. To me, it could just as easily have been called ‘innovation in housing’ or ‘doing the right thing in housing’ as that’s what all the speakers were talking about. It was put very succinctly by Joe Chambers CEO of Soho Housing: commercialism is ‘challenging custom and practice’.

All the speakers, including the HCA and CLG representatives, referenced a similar theme within their sessions. Essentially social housing (whatever that is these days) needs to get smarter at what it does to survive; whether that be smarter at borrowing, smarter at risk management, smarter at investment decisions, smarter at defining its purpose or smarter at carrying out its purpose – it needs to challenge the status quo. Perhaps if we badge what we need to be as ‘smarter’ rather than ‘more commercial’ it would be much clearer and less frightening. I think it would almost certainly be easier to understand and easier to link to very important concepts like cost and value, and less likely to encourage some of us to rush off and start strange schemes that we have no knowledge or experience of, simply because they seem to be ‘commercial’.

One of the themes to achieve this new ‘smartness’ that ran through the event was better knowledge of customers’ demands and preferences, and this depends upon that other thing we are scared of – data. Many ‘commercial’ organisations do this very well, and up to now, we haven’t. But we have great aspirations as we now do genuinely see the links between customer insight and service delivery. One of my favourite speakers of the day, Elspeth Mackenzie, CEO of Thrive Homes spoke about the customer insight which has driven her to challenge her team to deliver the ‘no return to the property’ void standard; an idea echoed by Jane Porter, Executive Director from Amicus Horizon who knows that most repairs are reported in the first year of a tenancy. Put these two things together and undoubtedly you are saving money, being ‘smarter’, being ‘more commercial’. Not scary and a fantastic and sensible use of data and innovation.

So, if the two scary things are put together – by using the data (or ‘evidence’) to challenge custom and practice we will inevitably continually innovate, change and innovate – something that ‘commercial’ organisations do. Using evidence to help to make decisions is pretty obvious really, isn’t it? A recent project I’ve been working on has used several sources of evidence to arrive at the right decision, the right direction to take and has delivered great results at low cost. Be good to hear about more examples of when we’ve tackled the scary monsters!

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