How can housing associations ensure they’re accountable to tenants?

Centre for Public Scrutiny has published a discussion paper, jointly with the National Housing Federation, seeking feedback on the best way to ensure we’re accountable to our tenants, and look forward to hearing your response.

Jacqui McKinlay is Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny

Jacqui McKinlay is Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny

10 August 2018

It is easy to call for more transparency and openness, as many have done recently of the social housing sector, less easy to truly understand what those words really mean in practice. Transparency means little without the accountability to back it up – information, on its own, cannot lead to change.

As a national charity and the centre of expertise on scrutiny and governance, the Federation has asked us, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, to provide challenge and support as they explore with you, their members, how they address a number of important questions currently facing the housing association sector.

These questions broadly relate to you as landlords – how you engage with and listen to your tenants and wider communities, how you take account and evidence the tenant insight gathered in your decision making, how accountable you are to your customers, and whether you truly put tenants at the heart of what you do.

We believe publicly committing to becoming more open and transparent as a sector will be a significant step towards being able to address these questions.

Housing associations have been clear in their commitment to take whatever steps are necessary to learn lessons from the tragedy at Grenfell tower. Tenants and residents in Kensington and Chelsea and beyond have spoken of feeling powerless and stigmatised, of feeling that no one was listening, of a breakdown in trust between residents and those in authority. These are profound challenges that demand meaningful change at many levels of society.

The challenge of making transparency mean something is one we’ve been addressing at the Centre for Public Scrutiny for many years across various sectors. Now we’re turning our attention to what it means for housing providers – and how more and better transparency can help you become more accountable, more responsive to your customers’ needs, and ultimately better at providing the service customers expect.

How can we change our approach to transparency?  

In considering what steps are needed to create more transparent ways of working, the evidence shows that it is ultimately about culture and behaviour. When it’s imposed from above, it can become a requirement with which to comply – often seen as a bureaucratic annoyance, but not something that impinges much on the ‘day job’.

There does however need to be a strong ambition and drive to change. The actions needed to create greater transparency, and ultimately improve the offer to tenants, will not happen by magic – even when most agree it’s the right thing to do, as we know is the case with housing associations.

There needs to be a demonstrable commitment to change, and a framework to drive direct action. Without this there will be a patchwork of different approaches and a risk that tenants are even more unaware and confused about what they can expect, and in some cases demand, from their landlord.

When transparency is seen as central to the way we work – something that informs our interactions with the people we house – it can make a real difference. We need the actions that we take to have a clear audience: tenants. This allows us to focus in on the critical questions.

Our partnership with the National Housing Federation

To stimulate action we have suggested to the Federation that a new transparency principle be added to their Code of Governance, with the aim of gaining the commitment of boards to putting tenants at the heart of what they do. This could be complemented by a charter – to help organisations promote and develop a meaningful culture of transparency and openness – setting out a series of commitments or standards that will define the offer for housing association tenants.

Charters of this kind are relatively common, but their reach and value varies hugely. A housing association charter will only have real meaning if it reflects the needs, concerns, expectations and views of tenants. And to do that it must not be created not just with tenants in mind, but with them in the driving seat. That is why the Federation is planning a significant and ambitious programme of engagement with tenants in the autumn.   

As a housing associations sector you are responsible for delivering any new commitments, and any other changes and actions identified through this work. It is therefore important to have a clear view of what landlords think is possible and deliverable before we start the next stage of engagement with tenants.

That is why we’ve have published a discussion paper, jointly with the Federation, seeking feedback on the best way to promote transparency and posing some particular questions on the nature and role of a charter.

You can download the discussion paper here, and send your feedback either by completing the online survey or emailing your feedback to offerfortenants@housing.org.uk. You can answer all or some of the questions, and we ask that you do so before 5 September 2018

We look forward to hearing from housing associations, and working with tenants, to develop a sector-wide approach to openness transparency that we hope will help the sector become known as among the most trusted and accountable organisations in the country.

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