Solving problems through partnership

Learning from experience

Throughout 2021, Link-ages has been involved in a promising and exciting challenge, working with a Local Authority and social housing provider to help address problems related to digital exclusion in social housing. Across the sector a lack of Wi-Fi connectivity for residents, and alack of focus on digital inclusion, has meant that social housing residents can lack access to digital services and opportunities that are increasingly standard, such as banking, access to information and medical consultations. The lack of connectivity also means that to inform residents of important updates regarding their setting, providers rely on face-to-face or phone contact, which can result in frequent un-answered contact if residents are not present at their property during a visit or call. Furthermore, social housing provider scan lack the flexibility to modify and improve their digital services to respond to need due to outdated connectivity and a lack of digital transformation. As a result, housing associations cannot benefit from the potential that digital transformation can bring, including improved services for residents and efficiency savings for providers.  

A holistic approach to transformation

Despite the clear benefits of improving connectivity, simply introducing Wi-Fi into a social housing setting, or updating outdated provider systems is not sufficient. During the trial with our partner housing association, it was clear that expecting previously inexperienced users to obtain and use technology independently is unlikely to result in positive outcomes. Clearly, many residents of social housing are established and skilled technology users, but our partner organisation has established that there is a significant group of residents who lack the experience and skills to use many existing technology platforms. This, combined with the cost implications of purchasing a tablet or smartphone, means that in a social housing setting, the simple presence of Wi-Fi is not enough. Our trial period brought together a package of Wi-Fi provision, tablets, and a simplified user interface, in a resident-centred trial, and showed that bringing these together in a package that can be easily introduced into a social housing setting can have significant positive outcomes for providers and residents. For residents, the immediate benefit was increased contact with family, but further developments will support improved connection with the provider; for example, the digitisation of their telephone befriending service, options to join conversation groups and other activities digitally as well as in person (when COVID restrictions allow) as well as the ability to report issues, or receive updates on planned works, and in the future access to further specific digital services. With providers we have begun the potential cost-savings over time, such as how easier and more effective communication with residents would free-up staff time, and how digital can provide better access to services for residents. Work continues in this area, and we focus on how to promote excellent service whilst ensuring cost-effectiveness. Work to date has suggested that there are savings to be made both in the immediate relief of some administrative burden, and in the longer term on reductions in unnecessary escalations of interventions that could be avoided by taking a more proactive approach to monitoring etc. The achievements in this trial period mean we are currently preparing for further significant funding for a second, much larger phase that would allow us to rollout provider-specific additions that would provide significant improvements in functionality and allow providers to begin to make financial savings and introduce a wide range of additional services to improve efficiency.

There are clear challenges associated with bringing digital transformation into a sector such as social housing. A historic lack of digital transformation, coupled with clear cost challenges for providers (and associated implications for residents), and significant numbers of residents in some settings without previous digital experience, mean that a new approach is required to achieve the functionality and benefit required whilst delivering at an affordable and sustainable rate. However, in working with a Local Authority and social housing provider, we have shown that by delivering a comprehensive and cost-effective package of Wi-Fi, hardware, and software, responding to the specific needs of the provider and their residents, we can encourage benefits and engagement for residents and providers, helping to ready the sector for the future.

Other articles from Link-ages