‘If you don’t like it, just leave’ – Social Housing’s ‘Competition Fallacy’ and Tenant Engagement Red Flags

A while ago, in August of last year to be precise, I read the article ‘Out of Our League‘ by Alistair McIntosh, CEO of HQN. In the article, Alistair asked what effect the White Paper can have in terms of improving customer standards and service provision in a market where customers don’t really have a choice. He asks “Is it better to reform or disrupt housing? Do we need new players? Will the White Paper get to grips with these questions, or duck them yet again?

This reminded me of an occasion where I found myself in a situation where I just knew that we needed new players, new ways of thinking to disrupt the leadership that is currently driving service improvement, because they know people will come to them anyway, if not that one customer, then another; that’s the nature of social housing.

Red Flag: If they don’t like it, they can just leave, it’s what I did…

Someone I used to work with, when I asked when/whether (but mostly WHEN) we’d involve tenants in a potentially service-changing decision and ask for their views and input, answered me with the following:

Well, we won’t, and I’ll tell you why. A while ago they changed the BBC Red Button set-up. I used to use the BBC Red Button quite a lot, and was quite happy with how it worked. When they changed it, they didn’t consult anyone as far as I know. If they had, I’d have told them not to do it (in that way). But they didn’t and now it’s just not working anymore, so I’ve stopped using it. They didn’t ask, and changed it anyway. So, it’s no use asking customers, because they changed it anyway.

The room went silent, people looked at each other, but nobody dared to say something. Luckily I’m Dutch and I’m not afraid to be the one asking the difficult questions. So I took one for the team and asked, channelling everyone’s startled and confused mood:

‘But… Isn’t this an argument for the opposite: they didn’t consult you, and now you don’t use the service anymore. If our tenants would do the same because they don’t like the service in its new shape or form… then… we might lose them, or if not, because they have nowhere else to go, are living with a service that isn’t in their best interest…

So… Aren’t we better to ask them about what we’re about to change and see if they can share with us their views so that we don’t do things that negatively affect customer satisfaction and indeed the quality of our service provision if we push through changes without considering there might be things from the receiving end that we don’t think of but are obvious to them???

The entire room looked at the BBC Red Button Boycotter, and expected them to say “Yeah… you’re quite right, this wasn’t the best example to use…!”

But… no. Nope. Nope nope. The story was repeated as an argument to not ask tenants for input because well, if they don’t like it, they can just decide to stop using the service, like they did with the BBC Red Button. Because, you’ll just get contradicting opinions, and then we’ll just do it anyway because we have to make a decision. So… No, this is a really good example of why not to get tenants involved in this kind of stuff.

And that was it. There was another awkward silence with some awkward looks around the table, but in the end the meeting went ahead. BBC Red Button Boycotter was a huge BBC Red Flag and warning for what happens in the social housing sector.

The needs of the business should be the needs of the tenants

Alistair’s question of whether there really is competition in our sector is a valid one. Its answer affects our need to think in terms of customer satisfaction and consumer standards in the sense that we don’t operate like banks, shops or for-profit landlords.

The actions of the BBC Red Button Boycotter show that there is this knowledge and awareness that even though a certain customer might think ‘screw it, I’ll try my luck elsewhere’ if they are in a position to do so, there are those customers depending on the nature of our sector that cannot make that decision, and will ‘fill up’ those tenancies, pay that rent, and will (have to) swallow any practices that they know aren’t up to standards, aren’t working because they are centred around the needs of the business first and foremost.

This is what doesn’t sit well with me, and where we need Alistair’s reform and disruption. In my opinion, the needs of the business, for social housing, are, first and foremost, the needs of the tenants. Their aim is to provide and manage safe homes and develop and offer services that work for the people living in these homes; for anyone, but especially for those who do not have a choice. Indeed, it should be the very knowledge that some people don’t have that choice to go elsewhere that should set us apart from for-profit housing providers, shops and banks.

We (should) care about what people think and whether the services we provide work. Not because we have to in order to maintain them, but because it is our raison d’être, our reason for being who we are. As long as the sector has people in positions of power who do not understand that simple premise that (should) underpin(s) the entire sector, no white paper, no green paper, no purple paper, nor any customer standard, survey or tenant scrutiny panel will make the impact needed to bring that organisation back to its original purpose and steer it away from the safety that not having any competition that affects its ability to function offers.