Universal Credit: How can Housing Associations combat the issue of digital inclusion?

Phoenix, working in co-operation with Goldcrest Housing Solution from Advanced Consult CRM (part of Advanced Business Solutions), takes a look at the issues of Universal Credit and digital inclusion.

With the staged introduction of Universal Credit (UC) underway, Housing Association-Tenant relationships have never been more important. Under UC, tenants will be obliged to manage their own money and take on responsibility for paying their own housing fees directly to the association via an online account; a major shift for associations and tenants alike. So how can Housing Associations combat the problem of digital exclusion?

Whether it’s for work, staying in touch with family and friends, booking train tickets, downloading films or buying the weekly food shop, these days internet access has become essential. But there are still 8.7 million adults in the UK who have never been online. And almost half of these – a staggering 4.1m – live in the social housing sector.

The consequences are wide reaching. Without internet access, some of society’s most vulnerable groups – the elderly, disabled, single parents and those on low incomes – will continue to be digitally excluded; this not only puts them at a disadvantage in their day to day lives, but also in their job prospects, health and education.

With Universal Credit – the Government’s new single payment system which will replace six separate benefits payments, including housing benefit – in the early stages of its nationwide rollout, what will the implications be? Tenants will be obliged to take on responsibility for paying their own housing fees directly to their housing association, preferably via an online account – the Government intend to increase the percentage of those claiming online by 80% by 2017 – making social housing providers valuable allies in the whole quest for digital inclusion.

A major online shift for social Housing Associations and tenants alike

Universal Credit, the Government’s new online single benefit payment system, is the biggest change in the welfare system in years and will have a huge impact on Housing Associations and their tenants alike. The proposal throws up many questions and issues for Housing Associations regarding improving their services while ensuring tenants are meeting their obligations.

According to The Guardian’s guide to Universal Credit, the Government hopes the reform will simplify the system for tenants, who will be obliged to manage their own money via an online account and take on responsibility for paying their own housing fees directly to the Association, therefore reducing administrative workloads.

Currently, when social landlords increase rents they inform the local council, which increases the tenant’s housing benefit in-line with the new rent. But under Universal Credit, the department is reliant on every individual claimant to make claims themselves and to notify the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) when their rent rises. If a tenant doesn’t report it they won’t receive their full entitlement. So the priority is to ensure everyone’s ready to take on this additional level of responsibility.

This is especially pertinent to the 4.1m UK adults who live in the social housing sector and who have never been online. In May 2014, the National Housing Federation commissioned Ipsos MORI to survey tenants in an attempt to understand their readiness for the digitisation of services. Of those interviewed, 40% did not have internet access and 51% of those who did felt that they would not be confident applying for benefits online.

Then there are the Housing Associations, councils and the DWP which are facing administrative turmoil. Despite the Government’s aim that by 2017, 80% of applications for Universal Credit will be made online, there’s currently no digital system in place so people can report rent increases online; it has to be done by phone or post.

There is a real concern that instead of making life easier, Universal Credit may end up making tenants less independent and more vulnerable; which would scupper the Government’s plans and result in more work for the aforementioned departments and associations, not less. So what can be done to streamline operations to the benefit of both parties?

Using CRM can help foster more effective tenant relationships and benefit social Housing Associations economically

Along with all Government-funded organisations, Housing Associations are under pressure to streamline their operations and achieve more with fewer resources. And given the introduction of Universal Credit, it is more important than ever that they provide excellent customer service.

Making it easier for tenants to get online will result in consistent online rent payments; emergency repairs being booked faster, at a time slot convenient to the tenant; and a reduction in day-to-day call centre enquiries, freeing up their time to deal with more complex queries. What’s more, resolving an issue via a phone call can cost up to £9, whereas dealing with the same problem online can cost as little as 50p so the cost-saving benefits that online services presents is a real advantage.

Providing a valued service that encourages tenants to opt for online over other communication methods, however, requires synchronising customer data from several different sources and processes in order to get ‘the full picture’ of a client’s background. And research shows the majority of organisations still need to make significant investments in new technology if they are to communicate effectively with tenants across a number of media and meet the Government’s digital inclusion targets.

It doesn’t help that the typical housing management system is still very much focused on the property and rent rather than on the resident. However, by using CRM, organisations are able to put the resident first and deal with the number of challenges that Housing Associations face when dealing with their customers:

  • Locating all resident information quickly (such as rent payments, household information and resident alerts)
  • Using multiple systems to log and find information
  • Not being able to track down previous contacts
  • No integration between systems

Its solution not only meets these challenges but provides specific workflows to manage the vast majority of queries logged by residents. Tenants can contact the call centre in a number of ways, via phone, letter, SMS, email and web and depending on the type of query the call can be automatically routed to the appropriate agent.

Additionally, if the phone number or email address is recognised then the details of the tenant will be automatically recognised by the CRM system and logged against their resident record in the database.

Over time, the system will store all interactions with the resident (including payments, repairs and letters sent and received) against their record, and the information from all these different information sources can be accessed from a single screen. Where necessary, security can also be configured on a record or field level to ensure tenant confidentiality.

However, the problem remains that without online access for tenants, attempts to transform service delivery made by individual associations are going to be largely in vain.

Two-fold benefits of helping to get your tenants online

Recent research published by the BBC has found that 21% of Britain’s population lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet. Without it, some of society’s most vulnerable groups are at a distinct economic disadvantage.

Not only are such households missing out on savings of £560 per year from shopping and paying bills online; but online skills are critical in finding and securing a job. Especially timely is the fact that without digital inclusion, new online welfare reforms could risk both claimants’ wellbeing and housing providers’ income streams.

Housing Associations therefore have an important role to play in combating digital exclusion and enabling people to take advantage of these new technologies. Moral obligations aside, doing so sees huge financial and operational benefits for them, too.

Grainia Long, former Interim Chief Executive of The Chartered Institute of Housing, says: “The internet lets you communicate with and respond to tenants and deliver better and more efficient services, instantly accessed 24 hours a day… At a time when we’re all under pressure to find efficiency savings and deliver ‘more for less’, building these skills among social housing tenants becomes crucial. Encouraging your communities to go digital is also an investment for the future.”

Initial sample analysis, using data from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Department of Communities and Local Government, suggests social housing providers could save more than £340m per year by using more cost-effective communications to their 9.5m residents; while local Government could save around £360m per year by moving just one monthly contact/transaction with the 4.1m offline adults, online.

Tackling the problem of digital exclusion

The aim of the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter, working alongside Go On UK – formerly Race Online 2012 – is to ensure all UK citizens have access to digital services by 2020.

As well as economic growth – hitting these inclusion targets is worth an estimated £63 billion to the economy, and online access to public services is forecast to save the Government £1.2 billion in the next year alone – enabling more people to go online can also help tackle wider social issues, such as health and education and help close equality gaps.

But as Baroness Martha Lane Fox highlighted on a Richard Dimbleby Lecture, the fact remains that 8.7 million adults in the UK still have never been online. What’s more, almost half of these live in the social housing sector. As a result, digital inclusion is now an essential part of customer care in social housing.

So what can be done to allay fears and give reticent tenants the nudge they need?

The solutions are many, and include organising classes in digital literacy; creating ‘buddy’ systems where younger tenants coach less digitally literate tenants; ensuring that web content is friendly to older computers and operating systems; and negotiating discounts for tenants with software suppliers.

The cross-Government initiative, the Digital Deal Challenge, highlighted the fact that partnership working between social housing providers, UK online centres and job centres are key to building digital skills, and that websites and online transactional services need to be so simple that they become the preferred channel for tenants.4

The Tinder Foundation’s Anna Geraghty says: “We see social housing providers as being key to getting people online – 50% of people who are offline live in social housing, and they can be difficult people to reach. Getting online will help people claim benefits but it will also help them do lots more, it opens up a whole new world for them.”

The Foundation’s Digital Housing Hub was created in 2011 as part of an action plan devised by the Social Housing Providers Digital Inclusion Strategy Group to examine how housing providers could carry out digital inclusion work. A central bank for resources and support relating to digital inclusion and housing, it provides tools and tips to help and inspire housing residents to take their first steps online.

As Paul Levy, author of ‘Digital Inferno’, acknowledges on the blog ‘Social Housing World’, several Housing Associations already use the Internet as an effective channel of communication. They’ve made their websites more interactive allowing online booking for maintenance appointments; have a blog or Facebook page where they can engage in interactive discussion with their tenants; have started tweeting; and also text to keep tenants in touch with news and reply to queries. In this way, digital inclusion helps to improve customer care, contribute to more effective and efficient service delivery, and help tenants feel more acknowledged and involved.

However, it also means that as the focus moves away from the traditional paper-based and face-to-face interactions that they’re more used to, tenants who are not online can feel neglected. And tenants who feel excluded can become problems, leading to high levels of dissatisfaction. This is especially the case in older age groups: research shows that, 80% of over-65s and 50% of under-65s see no reason to go online.

“The problem of digital exclusion is growing,” admits James Sweetman, one of the co-founders of www.stickyboard.co.uk, a social enterprise which uses technology to bring communities together. But with the issue recognised by executives and officers at every level, and a commitment to working together, it is one that we as a sector can solve for the benefit of the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Conclusion

There’s no doubt the next few years are going to be difficult for the social housing market. Universal Credit is the biggest change in the welfare system in years and although the Government hopes the reform will simplify the system for tenants, with social inclusion meaning half of the people they are trying to reach have never been online, this seems a difficult target.

As a result, digital inclusion is now an essential part of customer care in social housing. However, in order to meet the Government’s digital inclusion targets, the majority of organisations still need to make significant investments in new technology if they are to communicate effectively with tenants across a number of media. One of the main problems is that the typical housing management systems are still very much focused on the property rather than the resident. This is where the Goldcrest solution – synchronising customer data from several different sources and processes in order to get ‘the full picture’ of a resident’s background – can play a huge part in making it make it more attractive for people to make the leap to online over other communication methods.

Although several Housing Associations already use the internet as an effective communication channel – making their websites more interactive allowing online booking, and using text messaging to keep tenants in touch with news and reply to queries – there is still a long way to go to reach the 80% of over-65s and 50% of under-65s who say they see no reason to go online. Cross Government initiatives, such the Digital Deal Challenge as well as The Tinder Foundation’s Social Housing Providers Digital Inclusion Strategy Group, are therefore examining how housing providers could carry out digital inclusion work and provide tools to inspire housing residents to take their first steps online, not just to claim benefits but to open up a whole new world for them.

Although the problem of digital exclusion is growing, with the issue recognised across the board and a commitment to working together, it is hopefully one that both the Government and the housing association sector can solve for the benefit of its most vulnerable tenants.

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