Unleashing the digital board member

Last week, [16 October 2023], I presented at the HACT NED Network in what I hope might turn into a occasional session on encouraging social housing board members to fully embrace the digital era and shed our reluctance to invest in tech and the necessary skills.

Some people will be switching off right now. I get it; they will be shouting at me reminding me that this sector is about people and purpose. To provide decent safe homes for those under-served by the market.

Well I say firstly, and most obviously, that you will need to have better data and information about the quality of those homes. Here’s the crux – to excel in fulfilling our mission, we need robust data, better record keeping in good knowledge and information systems. That is not just me saying it; it’s the resounding message from the Better Social Housing Review and the proposed Consumer Regulations.

Let’s face it; technology is advancing at a breakneck pace in our daily lives. It’s exhilarating, albeit a bit daunting. Take artificial intelligence, for instance; it’s a double-edged sword, but it also promises efficiency gains that translate to more homes for those in need. It’s about the greater good.

Artificial intelligence will also be used in bad ways by bad people. It will also mean we will lose jobs, like lamplighters, drysalters, gandy dancers and knocker uppers who were lost though industrial development. But artificial intelligence is already opening up new healthcare remedies and is estimated to boost efficiency by around 5% of GDP. That’s also 5% more homes. The good will be the greater good. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the fact that AI’s impact on the less fortunate can be profound. In fact, the digital divide is widening, with many lacking internet access and digital skills. Digital inclusion isn’t just about tech; it’s about ensuring everyone has an equal chance.

According to the Good Things Foundation the digital divide is actually worsening. 1 in 14 people in the UK don’t have internet and 10 million adults lack digital skills. Digital inclusion is about people not tech. Digital inclusion = Access + Skills + Confidence & Motivation + Feeling Safe, and is linked to financial inclusion.

So, what I aim to do here is engage with board members on tech matters – how to manage risks, seek assurance, and strategise with leaders to ensure our sector stays competitive.

Undoubtedly, you’ve encountered board reports on GDPR, cybersecurity, and legacy systems during your meetings. These are symptoms of a shortage of digital skills and capacity. The tech experts aren’t solely to blame; they sometimes got carried away with their solutions. However, the primary challenges are ours to address. Stick or twist? Do we keep hanging on to the old systems and the old ways of working or embrace innovation and modernisation. Risk of breakdown or risk of getting left behind?

Perhaps there’s a middle ground? You don’t need to believe in this technologist’s utopian vision. You need to believe in your own words. There are currently five reports, studies or consultations that should have a bearing on your thinking.

Over the past year the sector has been given lots of advice in the form of reports from regulators, commentators, leaders and researchers. Here are five that have struck me as a technologist as a loud message to make improvements. So here is my autumn reading list.

Sector Risk Profile

The latest sector profile was published almost exactly a year ago, and this means that another one might be due shortly. Under operational risks, there are two that directly relate to data. When we talk about data, we should consider record-keeping, including documents.

Data Security. Primarily, this concerns the threat of a cyber-security incident. The reference to Data Protection is clear, but data protection encompasses a broader scope. We continue to retain data and documents that are no longer useful or in use.

Data Integrity is even more complex. To quote: “Accurate, up-to-date, complete, and reliable data are fundamental for boards to monitor areas such as rent setting, financial management, stock condition, tenant needs and expectations, health and safety, and meeting consumer standards.” Board oversight, control, and decision-making are undermined by a failure to maintain data integrity or by data isolated in siloed systems.

Consumer Standards Consultation

Additionally, from the regulator, we have a recent publication titled Reshaping Consumer Regulation. This consultation aims to update existing consumer standards, with most of the original intent remaining intact. However, there is now a significant emphasis on two key aspects:

Specifically, ensuring accurate property records: There is a particular focus on maintaining an accurate record at an individual property level regarding the condition of housing stock. Landlords are expected to utilise data from their stock records to inform the provision of high-quality, well-maintained, and safe homes for their tenants.

Transparency, Influence, and Accountability Standard – i.e. good communication with residents. This applies broadly to all aspects of regulation and the use of Tenant Satisfaction Measures (TSM) which have also been recently introduced.

These two elements form the I and the C of ICT – Information and Communication Technology.

Better Social Housing Review

The regulations co-correlate with the Better Social Housing Review and subsequent Action Plan co-authored by NHF and CIH. Nearly a year after the report, it’s pertinent to highlight its connection to technology, particularly:

Inadequate Systems for Repairs: Current systems do not effectively serve the repairs process.

Quality Data Challenge: The need for better data on home quality.

Digital Skills Gap: The social housing sector faces a digital skills shortage due to slow technology adoption, resulting in underpaid and under-skilled digital teams.

In essence, the report underscores the need for technological advancements to address these challenges in the social housing sector.

Housing Ombudsman Spotlight Report on Knowledge and Information

I believe this report is the most practically focused one.

“Poor information management is a prevalent issue across various service areas, making it the closest thing the sector has to a silver bullet.”

It’s described as such, not because it offers a simple solution, but because it provides valuable direction in terms of improving customer experience, setting data standards, enhancing ICT systems, and promoting good governance.

Customer of the Future

Lastly, one report you may not be as familiar with is ‘The Customer of the Future,’ commissioned by six housing associations and prepared by Dr. Simon Williams from Service Insights and covers:

Diversity of Future Customers: The report suggests that future customers will be more diverse, with hardship and poverty being dominant characteristics.

Heightened Service Expectations: These customers will have higher expectations regarding service quality and the quality of homes provided.

Demand for Understanding: Expectations include a desire for us to better understand their needs and service expectations.

Need for Speed: Customers will seek faster and more practical changes to be delivered.

Technology Expectations: They will also anticipate technology supporting efficiencies in service and home delivery, with a minimum requirement of enabling 24/7 self-service culture through websites and apps.

Innovation Through Smart Devices: There’s an expectation for greater innovation through increased use of smart devices for autonomous monitoring of home quality.

Broadening Customer Base: Lastly, the range of customers considering social housing is expected to expand, potentially making renting in the social housing sector a more desirable option.

As technology’s influence grows, there will be a greater emphasis on human-centred design while still retaining a focus on face-to-face, community-based, and low-tech or no-tech solutions in service delivery.

Summary of Reports

In summary what do these five reports tell us about how we should be using technology and how board members can understand into the importance of applying good governance in your digital strategies and transformation plans.

First off, data and data governance is a priority. Data Security is a biggie, especially in the age of cyber threats. Make sure you’ve got your data protection assured, and don’t forget about those old records collecting dust. Data Integrity is equally vital. Accurate and reliable data is your secret weapon (silver bullet) for everything from rent setting to safety standards. Siloed data systems can prevent good decision-making, so keep things integrated.

Now, onto the Consumer Standards Consultation. Two key areas here: accurate property records and communication. Keep those records straight for well-maintained homes, and up your communication game with residents.

The Better Social Housing Review echoes these sentiments, highlighting the need for tech upgrades to tackle issues like repair systems, data quality, and the digital skills gap.

The Housing Ombudsman Spotlight Report is a practical gem. It’s not because it’s simple, but because it guides you toward better customer experience, data standards, and governance through technology.

Lastly, ‘The Customer of the Future’ report paints a picture of diverse, tech-savvy customers with high expectations. Get ready for 24/7 self-service, smart devices, and an expanding customer base.

In a nutshell, good governance in your digital strategies is part of your changing landscape of UK social housing. Here’s our focussed list for practical board room discussions:

ICT / Digital Strategy aligned to business and corporate plans – which tech and why?

ARC looking at risks of data, cyber, GDPR – review an annual ICT / digital report.

Good KPI and performance information – TSM, quality of home, compliance – up-to-date, visualised, not over-explained.

Project and change management – cadence, coordination, and benefits realisation.

Skills, capacity and capabilities of internal team – you don’t have to do it all!

Remember our challenge – how does technology fit with your corporate strategy and purpose?

Who am I?

Part tech strategist, part Board Member. Three years ago, Peter Lunio and I founded Golden Marzipan with the aim of promoting change and modernisation. We jotted down key elements—digital, data, process, and governance—on a piece of paper, and the arrangement resembled a Battenburg Cake. However, we soon realised that ‘People and Culture’ was even more crucial, serving as the Golden Marzipan that bound everything together. I’m also a Board Member at Leeds Federated where they said the liked my diversity of thinking.


You might also like...

What is The Marzipan Way?

Introduction Thank you for connecting with Golden Marzipan. We believe that understand the unique challenges and opportunities faced by social housing organisations in introducing digital

Read More »

Want content like this straight to your inbox?

Be the first to hear about our fresh content, new downloads and Breakfast Briefings, all about making effective change.

Free guide

Delivering the digital dividend