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The latest in an occasional HQN series exploring practice and inspection issues. ...
The latest in an occasional HQN series exploring practice and inspection issues.

In this paper Sheila Stubbins considers how to ensure services are equally good across the whole organisation - an issue often picked up by the housing inspectorate.

Tales from the frontline: providing services consistently

across an organisation


Both councils and housing associations may work from several offices and, in

the latter case, across dispersed areas. The Audit Commission has frequently

noted difficulties in providing a consistent level of service, while reflecting the

wishes and expectations of particular groups of tenants. This may be

especially so where the landlord operates in contrasting rural, urban and/or

inner city environments, with different client groups or with communities that

have significantly different characteristics or needs. Any social landlord may

have staff who work in isolation, such as sheltered scheme managers. The

importance of ensuring that services are provided with consistent quality and

value for money across all contexts cannot be over-emphasised.

This paper considers the consistent provision of services to customers -

including those that are paid for through a service charge and those that are

provided as part of the landlord's functions of housing management, property

maintenance and customer care/access to services.

The dictionary offers a number of definitions for 'consistent' but landlords

should perhaps be striving to offer services that offer 'reliable, unfailing,

harmony' rather than 'uniformity'. This should be demonstrated in a manner

that is impartial and comparable in terms of value for money, but takes

account of the differing needs and wishes of the diverse communities they


What defines service standards?

All landlords, regardless of the diversity of their client groups and contexts, are

expected to offer Best Value, high-quality, cost-effective services and to seek

to continuously improve services in accordance with the needs and

reasonable expectations of their customers. They are also expected to

strengthen the influence of residents in the design and delivery of services.

Social landlords must define their objectives and from these develop servicespecific

standards. These must be capable of being monitored in order to

identify successes and failures, and must be regularly reviewed to facilitate

performance improvement. The standards should lead to detailed

specifications and thorough training procedures that enable staff to meet them

consistently and customers to understand what they can expect.

All aspects of performance must comply with legal and regulatory

requirements. Access to services, including office standards and availability of

information, must comply both with equalities legislation and with ODPM or

Housing Corporation requirements. Councils and housing associations must

now produce an efficiency statement annually, defining how efficiency and

service are to be improved. Social landlords must monitor against nationally

defined performance indicators and will be assessed and measured by the

Audit Commission against its Key Lines of Enquiry. These requirements

should be regarded as the baseline against which any organisation,

regardless of its complexity, should provide a truly equal service across all its

offices and services. Specifications and standards covering these areas

should be identical and the organisation should ensure that training and

development focus on these. These are the standards that will be publicised

in handbooks and newsletters for customers, who should be confident from

the publication of key indicators that the standards they receive from their staff

or office never fall short.

Ensuring defined standards are achieved across the organisation

Standards and procedures should be thorough and clearly written, and

encourage reference by staff. Procedural manuals should not be allowed to

gather dust on the shelf! Staff should be enabled to put computer systems to

full use, and receive regular updating.

In any situation where managers' discretion is permitted in defining action to

meet a standard, guidance must be provided regarding its use, and there

must be a clear audit trail to identify that guidance is followed and decisions

are fair and justifiable.

Internal audit staff should emphasise their role with regard to quality,

standards and performance, rather than purely financial matters. A range of

methods should be available for internal checks and computer systems should

ensure that required actions, notes or reports have been completed before

screens or files can be closed.

Staff structures and roles should be defined to ensure clarity and avoid

duplication, other than where this is required for safety or security.

Staff training should be planned from induction onwards and initially should

focus on the importance of achieving high quality in accordance with

specifications, but can be developed to ensure all staff are capable of selfmonitoring,

comparison and contributing to improvement of standards.

Mentoring and development of support networks is particularly important for

staff working remotely.

Monitoring should be treated as part of the service provision process rather

than as a statistical exercise performed by a remote department. Managers

should have access to data to enable them to regularly assess staff

performance, while staff themselves should be provided with easily used data

for self-assessment. An open working environment that encourages staff to

recognise their own failures and to access support is essential. Residents

should also be involved with monitoring service standards both formally and

informally, and unsolicited customer feedback and complaints should be used

as tools for service assessment and improvement.

Working corporately to achieve consistent, high standards

It must be recognised that some units may excel in some issues and perform

poorly in others. Furthermore, poor communication between units can lead to

misunderstandings, excuses and negative rivalries that can reduce service

throughout. Constructive comparison as well as regular liaison is an important

part of the continuous improvement process.

While team building is important and healthy competition between teams is

positive, it is equally important to develop positive relationships at all levels

between teams, departments and units. Enabling different teams to support

and encourage each other, and sharing expertise and techniques, will develop

both quality and consistency of service. This may be done through meetings,

visits, secondments or use of email or corporate information exchange

screens. This can also assist in identifying indicators that are unrealistic or

individual standards and processes that lead to divergent performance.

Interdepartmental conflicts can give rise to a blame culture, and conflicting

priorities. Service-level agreements between departments can prove

particularly useful, and often a consultative approach to developing the

agreement itself provides a useful first step in defining roles and

understanding the processes and the obstacles that otherwise may cause

conflict. This all contributes to the recognition of corporate responsibility and

desire to improve performance generally through individual effort.

Regular meetings between staff from different teams, offices or functions, and

focus groups to address or improve particular issues or processes, will enable

sharing of ideas and development of new systems and methods. Such groups

must have the skills to map processes and identify weaknesses, and have the

power to change processes throughout the organisation. The process may

also identify duplication of roles and inappropriate job descriptions and staff

structures that may themselves lead to inefficiency or poor value for money,

either corporately or regarding particular services. Such groups may need a

senior level 'champion' to promote the outcomes corporately particularly

where costs or re-organisation are required. However, as this could potentially

lead to revised roles and staff structures, the constitution of the group and role

of the champion must be defined to avoid compromise. Champions at all

levels with responsibility and opportunity to raise specific issues at the various

groups they attend can also improve standards and consistency.

Organisations that employ call centres for front-line services often see this as

a way of ensuring consistency across all areas. Providing such staff with

standard questions can ensure certain messages are conveyed consistently

to customers as well as identifying gaps. However, many such organisations

are disappointed to discover that the consistent telephone service and the

objective monitoring that this enables may simply highlight that the

complementary service that remains with area offices remains variable.

Customer service staff may find that area offices want particular issues dealt

with differently. It is essential to identify these as they arise and to check

whether it is because of failures to comply with corporate standards that were

previously hidden, or represents necessary adaptations to suit the particular

stock, staff roles or customer needs. In such cases the processes may need

to vary, but the quality of the outcome must be comparable, and the customer

service staff must have computerised systems that automatically highlight

agreed divergence from corporate processes in particular circumstances.

How can service standards be consistent yet responsive?

Beyond this baseline of consistency in specification, training, delivery and

monitoring of corporate standards, each department, unit or office should be

striving to raise its game. Identifying local performance indicators that reflect

particular contexts or needs should be an ongoing process, involving

customers, and where applicable, other stakeholders such as contractors, HB

teams, local agencies. Liaison with other local social landlords or service

providers may identify indicators that are particularly useful locally. Each

alternative or additional objective needs to be justified so that its relevance

and purpose is clear. Its links to the corporate standards should be defined,

particularly to ensure that there is no reduction in performance of these. The

standard must be specified and indicators identified that can be easily

captured. Initially such standards should be seen as 'extras' reflecting

particular community needs and expectations, that can be afforded without

jeopardising service on other matters or in other areas or units of the

organisation. Eventually, however, having piloted and evaluated performance

against the local standards, and identified critical success factors, each unit

should be required to consider whether such standards are relevant, perhaps

with minor amendment, for their own contexts and performance, so that there

is a general movement towards higher, more customer-focused, standards.

The key is to ensure that such local standards accord with the needs or

wishes of the customers, and are seen as locally relevant, rather than being

'better' than the service provided in other locations. If the local service

standard is generally 'better', or seen by customers as such, then all other

areas/units of the organisation must rise to meet it.

Responding to tenants' needs and reasonable requirements

Identifying appropriate standards and ensuring that local needs and

expectations are addressed realistically and within budget requires clear and

easily interpreted information about the customer profile, and opportunities for

tenants to participate fully and influence the process. Tenants must also see

that their involvement is welcomed and heeded and that the outcomes

conform with agreed quality and specifications. Tenants may need support in

responding to consultation and involvement, and landlords should be able to

identify whether any particular groups are failing to respond, respond

appropriately or access the services provided. Checks should also be made to

identify significantly different responses or requirements from different client

groups, and to identify causes underlying significant minority responses or

'outliers'. Tenant participation policies and compacts, estate agreements and

customer charters may all form a basis for agreeing general and local

standards. Informal and formal mechanisms must be in place to monitor and

evaluate the services themselves and tenants' perception of them. Standard

surveys must now be undertaken regularly, but other methods, including

telephone checks to tenants who have recently received a particular service

and 'mystery shopping' to check out customer service and compliance with

published standards, should be included and crosschecked between different

units and service types.

Services that are paid for by the tenant through a service charge, whether

fixed or variable, should be subject to regular consultation to identify the

actual services that tenants want and the standards to which these are to be

provided. Variations between one location and another are perfectly

acceptable so long as they reflect the wishes of the majority, and their cost

provides equal value for money. Where services can be provided individually,

including particular support services, meals, enhanced repairs or

improvements, etc, tenants should be clear about how these are paid for and

helped to assess their value for money.

Demonstrating quality and responsiveness

Tenants' handbooks and regular newsletters for customers should assist them

to understand corporate standards and performance, and should also

demonstrate how different and acceptable standards have been agreed in

local contexts. They should explain and give examples of how and in what

circumstances alternative standards may be appropriate, but the emphasis

should be on equal quality, cost and effectiveness, while reflecting tenants'

needs and reasonable expectations. Local newsletters may identify local

standards where these vary from corporate standards, but again, must

demonstrate and justify the reasons for the differences. The same approach

may be used when responding to queries from stakeholders or clarifying

issues with inspectors.

Consistent provision of services is not about uniformity but about making

services equally accessible and providing the best value for money, flexibly

and in accordance with customers' expectations.

Sheila Stubbins

Housing Quality Network

June 2005

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