Within the social housing sector there is a regulatory , and some would say moral, obligation to involve tenants in the decision-making process. This can be easier said than done.
The number of tenants who actively choose to get involved with their housing association can be low and is often limited to a small pool of tenants who repeatedly involve themselves or volunteer. This pool can lack diversity.
The recent introduction of Tenant Satisfaction Measures (TSMs), by the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH), has highlighted the importance of gathering feedback from a range of tenants, to reflect the views of the whole tenant population.
Whilst TSMs may consist of a prescribed question set, that all registered providers will be aware of, the stipulations around where feedback should come from provides a good set of guidelines that should be considered for all information gathering.
Who to involve
When it comes to tenant involvement, ideally a cross section of tenants would be involved, representing the views and opinions of the whole tenant base; involvement would be attractive and accessible to all with no barriers filtering who gets involved.
The reality for housing associations is that planning and setting up numerous ways for tenants to get involved is not easy; it can be both time-consuming and costly. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
Tenants’ circumstances and abilities vary along with their drive to get involved and contribute. Those who could potentially make the most useful contribution, from specific tenant groups, are often those who are most reluctant or less able to get involved.
This article considers what can be done to motivate involvement from a diverse range of tenants.
Who gets involved, and how do they feel?
We recently conducted a survey with TLF Panel. We wanted to find out what panellists who live in social housing think about ‘tenant involvement’. 627 panellists answered our questions.
49% of tenants said that their housing association provides opportunities for them to get involved. Interestingly, 37% said their association does not provide opportunities, and a further 15% said they ‘Did not know’.
This is surprising as it is unlikely that many housing associations do not provide opportunities for involvement (even if opportunities are limited). That said whether all tenants are aware of the opportunities to get involved is a different question.
60% of tenants have taken up their landlord on offers to get involved. Of those, 92% are glad they got involved and 88% say they will stay involved in future.
The most frequently mentioned reasons, from tenants, for getting involved were to make an impact and have a say, to find out what is happening in the Association, and to be involved in the community and get to know people.
60% seems a high level of involvement based on TLF experience with housing associations, and raises the question whether what tenants consider as ‘involvement’ is different from what housing associations define as involvement? For instance, tenants may feel that completing a survey is involvement as they are sharing their opinions. Housing associations would like tenants to be more actively involved.
It is encouraging to find out that when tenants do choose to get involved, they are pleased they did. However, that tenants also say they will stay involved goes some way to explaining why housing associations sometimes feel that there is a lack of diversity or refreshment of panels etc. Turnover is low.
Of those who chose not to get involved, 20% say they will get involved in future if the opportunity arises. It is up to housing associations to exploit this by making opportunities clear and accessible for those who show a willingness to participate.
When it comes to getting involved. We asked panellists if they thought that more tenants should get involved by attending meetings, sitting on panels etc? 64% said ‘Yes’, 9% said ‘No’ and 27% said ‘Don’t know’.
What gets in the way?
The most frequently mentioned reasons, given by tenants, for not getting involved were being busy, ill health, anxiety, being unable to make the meeting time or location, feeling that getting involved was pointless (“They don’t listen”) or that it required too much commitment.
When asked what could be done differently to encourage involvement, the most frequently mentioned actions were holding activities at a closer location (or providing transport), running activities outside working hours, providing more options for involvement (e.g. online), offering an incentive (suggestions ranged from ‘coffee and cake’ to a payment or rent reduction), getting a clear indication that feedback was listened to and that action was being taken as a result.
The key messages from the panel survey are that nearly all tenants who do get involved are glad they did and will stay involved in future. Whilst no housing association is likely to discourage involvement, this can present a challenge for housing associations who want to see a turnover or diversity in their panels, committees, meeting attendances etc.
There are tenants who would like to get involved but the location or time of activities do not work for them, and they are unaware, or potentially mistaken, with regards to what is required of them. They also would like some sort of recognition or reward for their contribution and time. That said, sometimes a simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way.
The pressure on housing associations to ensure a wide range of tenants get involved is only going to get stronger over time with relevant agencies becoming increasingly specific about what they expect and a tightened up of regulations. Coupled with this is increased media interest in how housing associations interact and listen to tenants.
What can you do?
Taking all this into consideration. What can housing associations do to engage and involve tenants?
Plan the activities. Put together a planned activity programme complete with aims and objectives, outputs and deliverables for each activity. Give thought to your target audience if you have one; this will help with your recruitment initiative.
Include timescales in any plans; build in time to promote the activity and encourage participation. Allow time to promote and recruit for any activities. Smaller scale activities with a more targeted approach may be easier to organise that larger activities with a wide remit which may be hard to meet.
Make sure each activity has a clearly defined agenda to keep things on track. Be sure to include sharing minutes/feedback in your plans to demonstrate to tenants that their feedback has been heard and participation was worthwhile. Make minutes/feedback available to all tenants as it may encourage wider participation.
Vary the approach. Do not stick to one format for involvement activities. Provide a range of ways for tenants to get involved: different locations, times, duration, channels etc. ensuring that there is an opportunity for all tenants, regardless of their needs, to join in if they choose to. Vary the location, time, duration, format, channel etc. depending on the objectives for the session. Make sure the format fits the participants’ characteristics and capabilities.
Employ a range of feedback collection techniques. Make use of and employ a range of channels. Surveys, meetings, focus groups (online or in person), online meetings, committees, panels, 1-2-1 meetings, face to face (including ‘door knocking’), coffee mornings etc. to involve a wide range of tenants over time. The channel can be flexed to the target audience based on the objective. With a single objective in mind, it may be effective to use different approaches on different days, depending on the audience. When it comes to involvement, multiple techniques can be employed if required.
Promote all opportunities. Make sure that opportunities are well promoted using a wide range of channels. Do not be afraid to go to tenants and invite them personally to join in, particularly if they are in a group you want to hear from and you feel they need a little more reassurance or encouragement.
When promoting opportunities, include all details making it clear what is involved, what is expected from the tenant not just the aim and outputs of any activity but the level of commitment and the format. For example, aside from the more obvious details around date, time, location and duration, make it clear whether the activity is ongoing or a one-off task session and whether the tenant will be meeting with a small group of people or a larger crowd.
Remind tenants of the benefits of taking part and what they will gain from getting involved. For example, they may learn a new skill or develop existing skills which they can include in a CV or personal statement.
Offer one-off involvement opportunities. Provide opportunities for short term commitment such as a focus on a specific topic, task, or issue. Tenants should not be excluded because they are unable to make a long-term or ongoing commitment. They may mistakenly believe there are no ‘one-off’ or short-term opportunities. They may also have a specific topic of interest or area of expertise that enables them to make a valuable contribution.
Make it very clear what you expect of tenants and consider incentives or ‘Thank you’ payments. Make it clear what, when and how they will be expected to contribute. Some tenants are wary of speaking in public or in front of gatherings but comfortable in a small group. You could develop a range of symbols, for promotional material such as infographics, so that tenants can spot, at a glance, opportunities that suit them.
Decide before recruitment, any incentive you may offer; it could simply be coffee and cake or lunch. Separate from incentives, are expenses. Take into consideration the cost incurred to the tenant, be sure the tenant is not out of pocket by re-imbursing expenses, etc. (e.g. transport or parking costs).
Provide help to those with limitations. Consider tenants who would be unable to contribute or join a group without help. Go to tenants who are unable to come to you by using a nearby location or vary locations so that no estate or scheme feels excluded.
Consider providing transportation or car sharing. Set up meetings for outside working or school hours from time to time to enable full time workers to join in. Give thought to the needs of those with other limitation or disabilities (which may be mental, physical or emotional). If online channels are being used for involvement, it may be a case of assisting tenants with accessing links, using their camera etc.
Provide an environment that is not intimidating, think about the location and the leader. Tenants will speak more openly and honestly if they feel comfortable. Ensure that they are physically and emotionally comfortable and this includes considering the personalities within any group and how best to handle them.
Consider the format of the activity and how to encourage feedback from all participants. It sounds simple but make sure tenants and welcomed and thanked for their contribution. They need to feel valued and appreciated.
The location, layout and ambience of any physical location needs to be considered. The room, tables, chairs, temperature, light etc. all contribute to ‘ambience’ and comfort (or discomfort).
Take time to think about which employees are attending activities. Tenants should feel comfortable being honest; this can be affected by the job roles of the employees in attendance (tenants should not feel intimidated), or if they are outnumbered by employees. Equally, tenants may feel the topic is being taken seriously if a senior employee is involved. Knowing what’s right is a judgement call.
It is essential that the person leading the activities possesses the required organisational and soft skills to work with tenants to meet the objectives. Select the leader with care. The best ‘leader’ is not always immediately obvious; the individual needs to be focussed and persuasive, able to remain in control whilst being encouraging. They need to keep activities to schedule whilst encouraging involvement. In some cases, the leader may be a tenant or assisted by a tenant to encourage peer group involvement.
Do not be defensive in the face of tenant opinion. Some tenants will be more opinionated or critical than others. Decide how to deal with this. This may require training or techniques in moderation to ensure everyone has a chance to have their say and any activities do not get dominated by one person.
Follow up and feedback. After any involvement activity prepare a feedback report, include a summary of the activity and any actions that will be taken. Be sure of your aims, objectives, outputs and deliverables, when planning. This will demonstrate to tenants that the exercise was taken seriously, and that it has generated valuable outcomes.
Tenants who attended will feel their time was well spent, those who did not will be interested to know the outcomes and may be tempted to take part in future activities themselves. Referring back to the TSMs, the RSH has stipulated that results should be shared with tenants, this is good practice and also applies to any other involvement activity.
Reassure to eradicate concerns of retribution etc. It is absolutely essential that tenants are not fearful of retribution if their feedback is critical. Throughout the process, from warm-up to completion, it is important to make this clear and reassure tenants. Remember this is a real fear that does put tenants off from getting involved or providing honest feedback. As mentioned earlier, the skills of the leader will play a role here.
Confidentiality and anonymity. There are strict guidelines on how to deal with research (and involvement is research). All guidelines are concerned with the well being of participants and their data, from planning and recruitment to results. It is important to follow the GDPR, DPA guidelines and MRS Code of Conduct; combined they cover all the requirements. Some of the guidelines would not be immediately obvious so they are worth studying.
Employees who are leading or assisting the sessions must be fully briefed and understand issues around confidentiality and what is required to stay within the rules. Points to consider are tenant anonymity and confidentiality particularly at the reporting stage, how to deal with feedback that names individuals (particularly if this comes up in a busy forum), potential safeguarding issues, and what tenants may share with friends and family after taking part in activities.
Rules and regulations will not prevent involvement activities but they do need to be taken into account and adhered to.
To motivate tenants to join in, they must feel confident that they can make a valuable contribution. They need to understand why what they are doing is important, and how they will benefit. They need to know what will happen, how it will happen, what the result will be, and how this affects them.
Taking time to set up an effective tenant involvement programme is time well spent. Word can spread quickly. If activities go well and tenants feel valued for taking part, they will recommend involvement to others and participation rates will grow from positive word of mouth and reputation.
 The Tenant Involvement and Empowerment Standard, set by The Regulator of Social Housing.