Governance mission critical
Balancing what’s best for customers with government requirements is a key governance challenge for housing association boards
Chair of Clarion HA, the Canal and River Trust, ReSI Housing and ReSI Homes
Issue 64 | February 2023
The housing trade press recently carried coverage about tenant satisfaction surveys. In summary, they reported that housing associations with more than 1,000 homes were usually commissioning what are known as transactional surveys rather than perception surveys. Apparently, scores in transactional surveys are on average 15% higher than for perception studies. The implication was clear: housing associations were playing the system and choosing the survey mechanism that gave the best result. Oh, and the Regulator of Social Housing has required that all housing providers use perception studies.
Well, I’m a fan of transactional studies, not because they provide a better result, but because they give us far more useful information about the day-to-day experience of people’s use of our services. They question people on actual transactions that have recently taken place and are quite specific. Perception studies measure just that – a subjective assessment of how you might feel about an organisation at an indeterminate time. Quite interesting, but not nearly so useful.
“It’s a great example of the governance question we face: who are we making decisions for?”
Who are we making decisions for?
For this article I was asked to write about governance. So why this rumination on satisfaction surveys? For me, it’s a great example of the governance question we face: who are we making decisions for?
The model answer is we do what is best for our organisation, provides us the best information and allows us to scrutinise our services. So, in the example above, the model answer is clearly (for me) transaction surveys.
But in truth, we can’t just ignore what the regulator wants, so we will do both, at extra cost and for no particular benefit. I understand that the regulator has a job to do and I understand why they have made this demand. We all have to exercise judgement and make balanced decisions. That’s how the world goes round. But I’m not convinced it’s good governance.
The problem is that this is far from being the only example. As boards we are charged with taking informed decisions that are in the best interests of our customers and organisations. We are the ones who are accountable for these decisions and we are the ones who have to deal with consequences, both good and bad.
But we are always looking over our shoulder. What does government expect of us this week? In what way is it different from what they wanted last week – and it usually is different as government priorities change rapidly. What does the regulator expect? What about our local council partners? When does external scrutiny and the legitimate expectations of external agencies that we account for our actions become the drivers for day-to-day decision-making?
As boards, we juggle these demands all the time. We are asked to spend more on our existing homes (reasonably). We take on new tasks where public bodies have, for their own financial reasons, pulled out. We are called on to regenerate old estates despite the absence of financial help. We are asked to take responsibility for the quality of our neighbourhoods and the support of those of our customers who are struggling to cope. We have rent caps imposed.
Focus on our mission
None of this is easy. There is, though, for me one fundamental principle which those of us charged with governance should always follow. As the custodians and guarantors of the mission and objects of our organisations, our first obligation is to that mission, to our residents and to the financial stability and probity of our organisation. Indeed, that’s our legal obligation.
So, for effective governance, the flow must be to consider the issues we are presented with, make the decisions we consider are best able to protect and deliver the mission and then ask if these decisions have any consequence for our relationship with, or obligations to, other stakeholders. The other way round means we make the decisions we think others want us to make. As soon as we do that, we cease to be in control.
“As the custodians and guarantors of the mission and objects of our organisations, our first obligation is to that mission.”