The tip of an iceberg?
There are three important issues social landlords must assess within their organisations in order to address the problems of damp, mould and condensation in their homes
Director, Campbell Tickell
Issue: 63 | December 2022
Everyone is, rightly, talking about damp, mould and condensation (DMC). Residents, staff, leadership and boards all want to be assured that the issue is being handled effectively. Social housing organisations are full of people who want to make the world a better place. And indeed, most housing association, council and ALMO staff do first rate work under especially challenging circumstances, and often in an environment of inadequate resourcing and constrained costs. But how is it possible to end up with extreme, negative results from untreated DMC problems? What are the lessons for all landlords? I’m struck by three issues of general relevance.
Risks need to be considered in combination as well as singly
First, the huge importance of considering risks in combination as well as singly. For example: the risk of marginalising damp and mould issues as ‘lifestyle’ issues; the risk of some customers engaging with housing staff less because English is not their first language (or other such reasons); and the risk that some technical housing staff may not be your top performers when it comes to customer service.
The very worst outcomes will only ever apply to a tiny number of customers. But my experience is that the very worst outcomes are invariably the tip of an iceberg with much greater numbers of customers facing less serious versions of similar problems.
Have you given yourself permission to ignore some customers?
Secondly, I have said for many years that I could go into any housing organisation and find one or more customers who that organisation had somehow given itself permission to ignore. Three places to go looking:
- unhappy customers making lots of noise in governance spaces;
- people living with damp and mould problems;
- people living with protracted anti-social behaviour.
But why might some staff think it is ok to ignore some customers? I think it is an outlying symptom of the old-style enforcement culture that was a cornerstone of social housing management for so many years. I worry that buried deep in some people’s cultural values is the notion that they are ‘better people’ than the people they exist to serve and this enables and permits them to ignore some customers.
We too easily persuade ourselves that such problems couldn’t and wouldn’t happen in our organisation. It’s not enough to point at policies and processes. You have to go deeper. What is happening when risks combine? How are you interacting with your most challenging customers? Who is on your list of ‘vexatious customers’? Are you certain that if a person on that list raised a legitimate enquiry, it would be heard and dealt with? How are you managing at-risk customers who face obstacles to engaging with you? Where are your blind spots? Who are you not hearing from and what challenges might those people be living with?
We need to create opportunities to ask awkward questions
How does an organisation manage, monitor and gain assurance on issues like DMC over time, issues which are small in scale, complex, and non-core in their nature? It will never be enough simply to say that you will maintain focus over time. Your methodology, reporting and monitoring need to create opportunities to ask the awkward questions. And then, crucially, there needs to be a critical mindset that requires proof that service is where it needs to be, rather than a complacent mindset that accepts performance measures as sufficient in and of themselves.
Deep-seated cultural issues can cause good people to do bad things. Organisations need to go beyond answering the question “We aren’t going to kill our residents, are we?” And also rigorously answer: “Have we got customers who we have given ourselves permission to ignore?” And “Where are our blind spots where risks intersect?”
Most housing organisations will never face an extreme occurrence to which they may have contributed. But you may well be negatively impacting quality of life for some residents through lesser versions of the same issues. Many more organisations will find cause for change if they look beneath the surface. Let’s address the iceberg, not just its tip.
We will return to this subject soon with some thoughts about what an excellent approach might look like.
“Most housing organisations will never face an extreme occurrence to which they may have contributed. But you may well be negatively impacting quality of life for some residents through lesser versions of the same issues.”