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.
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.
Housing Quality Network