David Montague

What we do when no one else is looking

The other day I found myself at a farewell do with a group of housing association chief executives. We shared, as you do on such occasions, what we love about the job, the best, the worst. How things were, how they are.
Published on 13/05/2019

The other day I found myself at a farewell do with a group of housing association chief executives.  We shared, as you do on such occasions, what we love about the job, the best, the worst.  How things were, how they are.  

All of us love being part of a sector with a social purpose.  There is no better job than making the place where you live, better.

The worst part of the job is when we let residents down, the impact our mistakes can have on lives and communities, on the reputation of every housing association.  

None of us are perfect, all of us have room to improve, and even the very best of us get it wrong sometimes.   The Institute of Customer Service defines world class satisfaction as above eighty per cent.  That means that even world class organisations get it wrong twenty percent of the time.

In housing, what if that twenty per cent are older people? Vulnerable residents?   What if our mistake relates to health and safety?  

Grenfell was a wake-up call for all of us.  Across the sector we re-examined our service, the quality and safety of the homes we manage, and out of this tragedy came a renewed commitment to learn, to do better.

Leading the way, the NHF worked with housing associations and tenants across the length and breadth of the country and launched Together with Tenants, a new charter, a commitment to involve our tenants in the things we do which affect their homes and lives.  Now we talk less about development, more about homes, more about safety, more about quality, more about tenants.  Our ambition to fix the housing crisis shines just as brightly as ever but new torches have been ignited on the road to achieving our mission.  But as we take the first steps on this road there is one more torch we need to light – trust.

In a recent poll the British people said that they trust David Attenborough more than they trust government, banks, anyone else.  They trust Queen the band more than Queen the Queen.  And they trust chocolate producers more than they trust housing associations.  Somewhere along the way we lost peoples trust, that's the Royal we, but also the housing association we.  We can blame it on the financial crash, expenses scandals, the internet, Trump, Brexit but some of that blame sits squarely with us.

At L&Q our leadership team recently did an exercise which involved each of us writing down the names of ten people we trust.  None of us found it easy to list ten people.  Then we were asked to note their gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, educational achievements, occupation.  And the sad fact is that too often we trust people who are just like us.  When things go wrong, who do you go to?  People you trust.  Our unconscious bias excludes and denies opportunity to people who are not like us.  And we lose that huge wealth of knowledge, understanding, insight and ideas. 

Maybe that’s what happens when things go wrong with our homes and service.   In the process of learning we listen to people who say the things we want to hear, confirm our own bias, and we deny ourselves the opportunity for genuine learning and change.

Maybe if we opened ourselves up to a wider group of people we could learn more, adapt, improve, and regain the trust we seem to have lost along the way.  And that, for me, is what Together with Tenants is all about.

Working in true partnership with our residents and stakeholders, genuinely acting in their interests, we can achieve a step change in service quality and take a step closer to building greater trust. But it is just one step.

We won’t earn trust unless we get the basics right.  Unless we act consistently and communicate with honesty, authenticity, humility.  Unless we act with integrity, in the true spirit of our founding purpose and values.

Values, charters, resident involvement improve communication and help guide the right behaviours.  But deep down we all know that in the end, we will only be trusted if we are trustworthy.  We will earn a great reputation if we are a great organisation that does the right thing all the time, even when no one else is looking.

When you are not on the front page of Inside Housing, when you are not the subject of an In-Depth Assessment or a House of Commons adjournment debate, when you are not writing your annual review, what do you do when no one else is looking?  Are your values and purpose, your customer promise, words on a wall, or are they written into the soul of your organisation and the actions of every person throughout every day?  I won’t pretend that L&Q has all the answers, I won't pretend we get it right every time, but along with every other housing association which has committed to the principles of Together with Tenants, we are on the road to building greater trust.

This article was first published in Inside Housing

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