We face many challenges as a society. These are often too big for individuals, governments or institutions to tackle alone. An overly paternalistic focus on individual behavior may lead to small changes, but the bigger underlying problems will remain.
This is an argument that goes right to the heart of the democratic relationship between citizens and the state. Meaningful collaboration and participation will enable us to adapt together and build the resilient partnerships that we need. This will have an impact at many levels and it will profoundly affect the way tenants and landlords engage with one another.
For tenants in social and council housing, who are more likely than the wider population to struggle with rent and the cost of living, and disproportionally represented among those affected by the current changes to welfare, having the support of a strong and resilient community is particularly vital.
Welfare reform sits alongside other significant long-term trends such as an ageing population, a drive towards energy efficiency, and digital inclusion, all of which are putting pressure on tenants to adapt. But meaningful change is a two-way street. Social landlords will have also have to consider the impact of these trends on how they engage with their residents.
A new report from LGiU and Mears looks at the way this relationship is already changing. In a survey of 200 registered social landlords, housing associations and local authorities, 60% said they had already increased their spending on tenant engagement in 2013-14. This is encouraging news and indicates an awareness of the approaching challenge.
In straitened times, it is imperative that resources are spent in the best possible way. The report presents some clear and practical examples of social landlords who thinking creatively to do exactly that.
On the basis that tenants prefer to speak to someone in their own community about housing and financial concerns, a number of organisations have trained neighbourhood volunteers to inform and advise other residents. Asert, an independent auditor, has developed this into a full-blown employment scheme for social tenants.
Many landlords are using data to target their communication and outreach where it is needed most. There are various methods for doing this. Under First Wessex's "green doctor" scheme staff visit tenants to assess the energy efficiency of their homes, relaying important information and advice in the process. Home Group commissioned a sophisticated data-crunching exercise to build up a detailed picture of the community. This allows support to be provided for those who need it.
Others have identified financial inclusion as a serious challenge for their tenants. One housing association, Plus Dane, trained staff to give financial advice and some have been certified by the FSA to help tenants open bank accounts. Another landlord in Glasgow has set up a community bank in its offices.
The report also recommends that landlords consider four practical lessons to help them work in partnership with their tenants:
1. Invest in community resilience, and focus on giving tenants the tools they need to support independent living where possible. This does not mean removing vital services, but ensuring that resources are targeted towards community resilience projects. Digital inclusion strategies, energy efficiency schemes, employment brokerage programmes, coordinated financial advice/support and referrals to community networks all have a role to play.
2. Make use of all the contact with third parties, such as contractors and the voluntary sector who regularly engage with tenants. This helps to opens up opportunities for more targeted and effective communication.
3. People are often more likely to engage openly with a member of their own community than with an official source of advice, particularly in the context of welfare and rent arrears. Identifying champions within the community who can provide good information and support is an important way of reaching out to those in need.
4. Breaking down and using data can help to identify those in need of specific forms of support. It also helps to establish the best means of communicating with different groups of tenants,
Many social landlords are already moving away from purely transactional relationships with their tenants and employing new and proactive ways of engaging them in meaningful conversations.
This will take many forms. To meet the challenges we face as a society our work must be supported by an active and open dialogue between the citizen and the state. Nowhere is this more true, in these challenging times, than in the relationships between social landlords and their tenants.