Why, oh why oh why?

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I think Bromford has done a pretty good job of using social media to open itself up and encourage conversations and links across teams, across geographies and across hierarchies. To that extent we are a pretty connected place. Thom Bartley hadn’t been working in our moneymates team for long when I got a call from our CEO Mick Kent after he’d read Thom’s How to fix the Job Centre post……..

“This guy can obviously write. He’s got interesting things to say…..what are we doing with him?!”

That’s what I like about this place. If you do interesting stuff you get noticed and then you get opportunities to do more interesting stuff. So when we were looking to try a new way for customers to share their thoughts on our services Thom was invited to be part of it. The result was Brombox and later what became our Customer Review 2013.

So when Visceral Business published the 2013 Connected Housing Index a week or so back it was no surprise that Thom should have plenty to say about it. 7 Takeaways from the Connected Housing Index ’13  is full of energy and passion. I agree with many of his 7 takeaways. But I think he’ actually buried an 8th, and for me most important, point at the end of his final paragraph.

“UK housing is too inward looking. It seems the majority of the noise we make is to impress other housing associations. We’re very good at patting each other on the back but we are comparatively terrible at networking with organisations outside of our sector and engaging customers in a meaningful way. Instead of showing off to each other we should try to show off the excellent work we do to the wider business market and public at large.”

Housing v charities

Visceral Business have also published the 2013 Social Charity Study. It looks at the top 100 connected charities and how they are adapting to a digital world. What is immediately evident is that the charities seem to be adapting much faster and more effectively than UK Housing. The charities have many more twitter followers, many more Facebook likes and are far more LinkedIn than their housing compatriots.

Why?

Well let’s take a look at the top 5 in this list:

1 Save the Children
2 Comic Relief
3 Oxfam
4 DogsTrust
5 The British Museum

Who are these charities engaging with? Certainly not their ‘customers’……you don’t get many abandoned dogs using twitter or victims of earthquakes looking up the Oxfam page on Facebook so they can ‘like’ it. It’s not the users of the services these charities provide that they are interacting with, it’s their supporters; the people who share the charity’s vision; who want to see some aspect of the world change for the better……..their fans. (OK so maybe that’s not true for the British Museum. Perhaps that’s more about wanting to find out what you could take your kids to at half term. But look down the whole list of 100 and you’ll see what I mean).

People engage with charities around the why; the why the charity exists, their purpose. Charities are great at talking about their purpose and the way they make a difference. They build a following from people who share their values; who value their purpose.

Ironically many housing organisations are charities, Charitable Housing Associations, but they are rather less successful at explaining to the great British public what they are for….why they exist.

Sure they build houses but  most of those houses would have been built by the developer anyway. And housing associations have been pretty ineffectual at convincing people that we need to build many, many more houses – that there is in fact a national housing crisis and that people need to accept the building of new homes on their door step. NIMBYism is alive and kicking and has a new champion in the form of Tory Minister Nadhim Zahawi.

When housing does talk about more than bricks and mortar it is either to set out its rather pedestrian service offer to customers (how to report a repair online; or how to check a rent account before having to join the queue at a contact centre to actually make a payment) or it’s to tweet rather patronising warnings about forthcoming cold weather or payday loans.

There is almost no attempt by most housing organisations to make the wider public care about what they do; to help people make the connections and see the wider societal good that comes from providing a new affordable home to a family escaping domestic violence with young children who have nowhere to do their homework; or supporting someone on the fringes of society to grow in confidence and become an active contributor to their community rather than reliant on scarce and expensive public services.

Yawn

Next time you are at a party or down the pub and someone you don’t know asks you what you do. Try answering “I work for a housing association” and see how quickly they start scanning the room for someone more interesting to talk to.

The real takeway from the Connected Housing Index is not who came top or who went down five places. The real takeaway is the tragedy that it lays bare just how bad the whole sector is at articulating why we are important, why what we do matters – not just to ourselves or even our customers – but to society as a whole.

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17 responses to “Why, oh why oh why?

  1. Well said, John

    Another factor you might want to take into account is the self-congratulation I see from some people who like to think they are persuading the world of their case when they are, in fact, merely talking to each other.

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    • Thanks John – I think you’re right. Housing can be a very closed off, self referencing clique. I think that to the rest of the world we must look like one of those “guest publications” on Have I Got News for You.

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  2. Well said both John’s.
    This post reminds me of thoughts I had recently after watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for the first time ever.
    In brief , in the film the whole community rallies round to save a local building and loan company ( aka mutual building society) after the week’s takings are ‘lost’ on the way to paying them in at the local bank. They raise thousands of dollars from their own pockets to save it from insolvency and the manager from potential criminal charges – because they have a mutual stake in it and have all benefited from loans and membership. Even when times were hard.
    That mutual stake and willingness to give is certainly present with charities and with volunteers in some community based housing organisations, but perhaps terminally absent from the wider #ukhousing sector. I can’t remember the last time ( if any) I read about any community come to the rescue, rally round in support of or even donate significantly to a housing project or organisation. Yet there are plenty of stories about those who leave money to charities in their wills?
    Is that a reflection of the limitations of the legalistic landlord tenant relationship , that social rented housing is now the tenure of least resort, or of the sector not conveying a strong and positive enough message about its work and purpose? Or something else?
    Food for thought.

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    • A great comment Peter. A few years ago a colleague in our Development Team came round with a sponsor form. He was cycling to raise money for a mental health charity……that we were competing with for an SP contract in the same town! Our own colleagues had no real sense of what it was we did. No wonder the general public just thinks we run the Council housing (sic).

      We’re getting better at Bromford but still have a long way to go. Our contact centre was used on Comic Relief night and was ‘staffed’ by colleagues in fancy dress giving up their time and having a ball along the way. But the real measure of success would be if staff from our ‘neighbours’ in Wolverhampton – Persimmon, Virgin, RBS – volunteered to answer the phones to help raise money for our Foundation http://www.thisisyoucan.org

      Now wouldn’t that tell us things were changing?!

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  3. John, I think you’ve nailed a great deal with this post. It’s so true that ‘why’ not ‘what’ is at the heart of connection and engagement, and especially so in a networked world. Housing matters a great deal to people and is one of the most fundamental factors in creating human security, so the question is why is this relegated in Housing communications?

    When we produced last year’s Connected Housing report, we tried to touch on this point. We talked about and showed how social media asks every organisation to be more expressive in their communications and shift gears, changing the emphasis from ‘this is who we are and what we do’ to being more user-led, talking about the way organisations do things in their own way, the skills they bring, their culture, their personality and the mission and vision that propels them.

    For social media content to be shared it has to be stuff people trust and believe in. For there to be a dialogue, conversation has to be inclusive and about what matters to people, balancing transactions and relationships, utility and narrative, in a way that’s both simultaneously credible and compelling. Personality, approachability, visual and verbal behaviour are all signifiers of that, as we see and feel in the gut with people who bring a point of view – like you and so many great people at Bromford who step up and are prepared to be counted.

    I’m really excited you’ve written this and shared this perspective. Though charities have an inherent supporter base, there’s no greater vested interest than the roof over people’s heads. The people who are social leaders in UK Housing understand and champion this, as you have.

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    • Anne. Thanks for taking the time to respond so fully. I really appreciate it. 13 years ago when I took the plunge and moved from a mental health charity to a housing association, one of the things that made me nervous was the then ‘collar and tie’ culture. I think housing organisations were obsessed with trying to be bigger, slicker, more corporate and professional than each other.

      I hope the tide is really turning. We shouldn’t be fixated with how many homes we have……or replace that with boasting about how many people we employ. We should be focussed on how many lives we have helped change. And not by ‘doing to’ people but by enabling, empowering and believing in what people are capable of…..by using their own skills and abilities nod working with their neighbours, friends and families.

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  4. You are so spot on here John. For the last 30 or so years housing associations have outsourced their mission setting to the “paymaster” of government. Now government has far less to offer, many organisations are being forced to consider their real purpose for the first time in decades. At THT we have concluded that we exist to address poverty, injustice and inequality and are busy “turning the tanker” round to align to this new direction. There is no “right” direction to follow and each association must find its own passion based on history context and future opportunity. What would be wrong though, is for associations to continue in their current direction without active consideration of whether it is now right for them.

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    • You express the issue perfectly Matthew. It’s as if we’ve been asleep for years – or as Mick Kent would say, it’s as if we’ve been in a government funded drug induced stupor. The new world is much tougher but it’s so much more energising to be taking back control of our destinies…….anyone think we should bring back KLOEs?!

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  5. A year ago in January 2013 the National Housing Federation released a report saying only 57% of tenants knew of the bedroom tax. 12 months on it seems there are not 57 pet gerbils who are not experts in the subject. That says it all about how well HA’s communicate.

    John, you will know well that working in mental health or similar that supported housing is about ‘people’ yet mainstream or general needs housing is and always has been about bricks and mortar by comparison.

    In the pub tell them you work for a HA and today were able to find a home for a DV family and people will listen as its about people. Tell them you work for a HA and need to build 200 houses and that’s about bricks and mortar. Its not only the message its the audience.

    The audience in the general public ‘know’ about social housing…its the housing of last resort and been allowed to be perceived that way because the ‘sector’ (a figment in any case) is woeful at getting across what housing is and always has been AND always will be while they self-perceive housing to be about bricks and mortar.

    Anyone would think SOCIAL housing is a bloody big and obvious clue!!

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    • Interesting Joe. I do think you are right to note that supported housing has always focussed on the person living in the home rather than the building itself. Housing associations have for too long been focussed on how many units (sic) they own; how much grant they have secured; what proportion of their rent they have collected. They’ve allowed themselves to be coaxed and cajoled by governments and quangos and lost their way.

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      • Yes all riveting subjects for a pub conversation too! The biggest myth is there is a ‘sector’ as some form of unifying construct when the reality is perhaps other HAs are the only ones who will listen?

        Can you think of the last time ANYONE promoted this mythical ‘sector’ and the work it does?

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      • If there is a ‘sector’ then it’s in as much as housing organisations spend so much time talking to and about each other. I visualise most HAs being like a big group of penguins on a David Attenborough documentary, all huddled together against an unforgiving and unloving environment.

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  6. Interesting thoughts as ever. My observation from our experience of what our communities engage with on social media is that it is precisely the emotional relationship with the landlord that motivates customers to share their thoughts, questions, frustrations, hopes, anger, etc. Charities know how to do this because their supporters have an emotional relationship with them. This is what motivates this audience to be advocates and fund raise for example. So the posts about how great we are bomb, whereas content that is relevant and which strikes a personal response does better. We do have an opportunity through social media, however, to connect very directly with customers and communities in their everyday lives, as long as we are relevant and useful.

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    • I hope I didn’t bully you into making a comment Michael! I’m glad you did because it’s a great one. Far too often our sector uses social media to simply shout about ourselves……what we’ve done…..how big we are…..some award or other……frankly no one cares. If we use social media to tell stories about how people overcome the challenges they face in their lives, yes with our help, then we can really connect with our audience. We need a bit more humility and to remember it’s not about us. It’s about the people we serve.

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  7. Thanks for tagging me into this post on Twitter John.

    Definitely agree with the 8th takeaway about going beyond the realms of #ukhousing. Part of my feedback towards the #HousingDay survey that circulated recently was that, as pleasing as it was to see so much noise, it would have been great to have had many more of our partners involved such as other charities, suppliers, local councils, etc. to add more of a sense of authenticity to the campaign and get our messages out to their audiences too.

    The point about comparing HAs to other charities is an interesting one, particularly around engagement. For me there’s quite a difference between them and HAs (even those with charitable status). Put simply: most other charities won’t take you to court if you don’t “donate” to them after a number of months. It’s inevitable that some tenants purely see us as rent collectors or fixers of broken things. Why would they want to engage with their “nasty” landlord? Charities are also a lot smarter about focusing on their campaigns and what they’re actually about. Probably because they have to – they don’t enjoy the assured income that a lot of HAs have done until lately.

    Michael Howard is bang on the money when he talks about the “emotional relationship” people have with their charity of choice – quite often this comes from a personal experience with the particular cause the charity represents. Yet HAs often take people of the streets, support victims of DV, provide care and support of the vulnerable etc. etc. etc but these stories never seem to float to the top.

    So yes, there’s definitely a need for the personal stories to get out there, to build the (positive) emotional relationships with our customers and the general public. I guess the likes of #HousingDay are only the beginning of what looks to be a significant task ahead.

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    • Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts. I think you are right that housing has overly focussed on seeking to engage with the direct users of its services where charities (and I am massively generalising here as it depends very much on the specific area of interest of the charity) often do not engage their beneficiaries but the wider public. In his post Thom Bartley suggested that people follow a charity on FB or twitter as a bit of a ‘badge’ a way of showing off. But even if when they first do it it’s fairly superficial just making that public step is very powerful…..it starts a public relationship between the two parties…..like wearing an engagement ring. Imagine how much higher up the political agenda housing might be if every MP knew that their local housing association wasn’t just ‘liked’ by 10 % of its tenants but by 30% of his or her constituents?

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