SECTION SEVEN: DEVELOPING COMMONALITY
Why is commonality important?
With increased experience of CHRs in Scotland there is growing awareness of the importance of commonality, i.e. harmonisation of policies and procedures. CHR partners are finding that building on areas of commonality and bringing policies and procedures into line, makes the CHR simpler for applicants and more straightforward to establish and manage.
Several CHR partnerships across Scotland have found that establishing a CHR with a range of individual allocations policies is complex. Partnerships have also found that this complexity cannot be justified given the high level of commonality that already exists between the partners' allocations policies. There are many examples of partner landlords looking at their policies and recognising that they are essentially prioritising the same people and assessing need by broadly the same criteria.
In recent years, there has been a considerable change in practice, with more and more CHR partnerships working to create commonality in their allocation policies and surrounding procedures. At the time of the 2007 CHR Baseline Study, 15 just five CHRs were developing or had implemented a common allocation policy, and two had or were developing a common assessment of need. By the time of the 2008 CHR Position Study, this had increased to 12 and five respectively. In addition, around half had introduced common medical assessments.
The Scottish Government's CHR Case Studies 16 found that harmonisation and commonality in policy and practice are very important to creating a successful CHR:
"In areas where partners have been prepared to compromise on existing policy and practice, they have found the process of establishing a CHR much simpler than in areas where organisations have sought to hold on to existing procedures."
Harmonisation and commonality has also helped to simplify the ICT solution required to deliver a common database. Indeed for some CHR partnerships, the delivery of a full CHR with a common database would not have been possible without harmonisation of allocation policies. Some areas have found that in retrospect, they could have simplified their CHR through increased harmonisation.
The 2008 CHR Position Study 17 also found that introducing common procedures - such as common medical assessments - reduced the time and resources that partners required to dedicate to these areas.
In some cases partners have recognised after agreeing and implementing a CHR model that the CHR can work more effectively, and be more straightforward for applicants, when there is harmonisation of policies and procedures.
Example: Developing common policies and processes
Since the launch of EdIndex - the CHR for Edinburgh - partners have recognised that the early decision to retain all 25 seperate allocations policies made the process of developing the application form and ICT system more complex and difficult. Making changes to the ICT system (in response to organisational changes) and work to shorten the application form highlighted the difficulties of having so many different ways of doing things within one CHR. There was a feeling that developing greater commonality would make the system easier to understand for applicants, which partners had been committed to from the beginning:
"EdIndex was driven by the idea of having only one form - getting the same number of points from landlords was the next obvious step on from that." ( CHR partner)
There were, however, fundamental differences in the way in which partners allocated properties. At that stage about a third of EdIndex partners were committed to Choice Based Lettings ( CBL), about a third supported greater harmonisation with a traditional approach to allocations, and the remaining third were less certain or undecided on the best approach.
In order to simplify the picture RSLs were asked whether they would like to look at developing CBL (several landlords were already interested in adopting CBL) or work with others to develop a harmonised assessments of need. Two working groups were established to explore these options further.
The EdIndex partners have the following advice for others developing common processes:
- Partners need to be committed to improving the application process for tenants.
- A willingness to compromise is needed on the basis of partners being prepared to challenge their own policies and procedures and being clear about what is, and what is not, needed.
- Good communication is very important. Having a core working group gives focus and drive, but consultation and communication with those outwith this group is vital.
Increasingly, partnerships that are developing CHRs are looking at commonality as a first step in the process - and harmonising policies/procedures where possible and practical.
Example: Ensuring commonality is there from the start
HOME Argyll was launched in October 2006 involving:
- a common housing allocation policy;
- a single housing application form; and
- joined-up housing information and advice, including a new website.
The partners feel that there have been three positive outcomes for creating commonality. The first was the obvious difference the common application form had made to applicants. The form is now seen as clearer and simpler. The second benefit of commonality was that more consistent information and advice was available for applicants - whichever housing office an applicant enters, they receive the same information. Thirdly, the partners agree that common processes have led to better joint working, and there are now improved channels of communication between them. Due to Argyll's geography front line staff had often never worked together in the past, and have now built relationships which encourage sharing of information and expertise. Strategically, organisations are also more engaged. Committees are also developing a better understanding of how each organisation works, with joint events allowing the opportunity to share experiences and build links.
"There is more communication between partners now, as previously it was a case of 'them' and 'us'."
Partners in Argyll and Bute offer the following advice for those planning to work towards greater commonality:
- Start out with a common allocation policy
This simplifies the rest of the process, and above all makes the process easier for the applicants.
"I'd recommend the common allocation policy as a starting point - without that, then you've failed … it just simplifies the rest of the process."
- Keep talking - The partners felt the success of the CHR can be determined by the people 'around the table' and that personalities can have a lot to do with making it a success.
"It all depends on who is round the table; there can be negotiators and dictators but you have to be ready to compromise and not be precious."
- Keep in mind the common goal - and to remember that the hard work starts once the CHR is up and running!
"Getting the CHR up and running is just the first step - you have to keep refining the policies."
- Get feedback from front-line staff - Partners have found their operational group made up of front line staff very beneficial and would suggest starting something like this early in the process of the CHR.
"The operational sub-group has been invaluable to us."
How to harmonise your policies and procedures
CHR development is primarily an exercise in joint working. Successfully establishing a CHR depends upon relationship building, compromise, shared vision, trust and commitment, all essential components of working in partnership.
Case study examples have highlighted the importance which partners place on ensuring that the right people are involved, with most partnerships seeking to bring together a mix of strategic decision makers and operational staff, who will be involved in implementing the CHR at an operational level. One of the benefits identified for the development of CHRs was related improvements in joint working between the partners.
Example: Working towards commonality
In Highland, there were two main drivers for developing common policies and procedures including a common allocations policy:
- it would make life easier for applicants, who wanted a clear system of pointing; and
- it could make the development of a common application form and an ICT system more straightforward.
Early discussions had focused on developing a common application form, based on the existing sets of policies and procedures, but this had proved difficult. In addition, the initial work on developing a common application form highlighted the opportunities for a common set of policies and procedures:
"There was recognition that there were fundamentally more similarities than differences between the various organisation's own policies. We knew the ICT impact of having different policies would be significant." ( CHR partner)
The Highland Housing Register ( HHR) Working Group (made up of Housing Managers from each organisation) developed the common policy and procedures over a year. The group first focused on areas of commonality, then began discussing areas of difference between the organisations. Although it was resource intensive, partners found it relatively straightforward.
The partners recognise that it has been a positive step to develop common policies and procedures, but appreciate that such fundamental changes have to be effectively managed:
"The shared allocations policy has been a big step. We all had to be clear that it would be better, or as good, as what existed. We had to be sure nothing would be lost. It has been important to be clear about the downsides as well, and where these are outweighed by the benefits. The Committees have been able to focus on how this shared approach has improved the system and benefited customers."
The result is a shared policy and set of procedures for how all the HHR partners will manage the housing list and allocate houses. This includes:
- a common allocations policy - which has a shared system of pointing;
- consistent assessments of poor housing conditions and health needs; and
- common procedures for gathering evidence to verify application details and for references.
The shared allocations policy is available from all of the partner websites.
How to develop a common allocation policy
Where CHR partnerships have supported work towards a common allocation policy an effective approach has been to establish a dedicated working group (typically a sub-group of the main CHR working or management group). Broadly speaking, the process involves:
- reviewing existing policies;
- refining the common elements - areas of similarity where little further work is required; and
- dealing with issues at the margins - further negotiation on areas where there is no existing consensus.
Although the time required to achieve commonality has varied across CHR partnerships, and there are cases where the process has been relatively quick and straightforward, it is likely that harmonisation work will require regular meetings and a significant commitment of staff time. But this investment should save time and money in the longer term, and provide a more effective CHR for applicants.
It is also important to remember the duty the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 places on landlords to consult on policy reviews with tenants and RTOs.
Example: Developing a common allocations policy
HOME Argyll was one of the first CHRs to establish a common allocations policy. This is underpinned by a range of common procedures.
Following a feasibility study which concluded that the prospect of a CHR was viable, the partners established a harmonisation group. This consisted of relatively senior housing staff who also had experience of dealing with applicants. The aim of this group was to work through each of the partners' policies and to come up with a common policy all could agree upon. The issues discussed included definitions of poor property condition, lack of amenity and overcrowding and how tenancy references would be gathered.
Following the early success of the harmonisation group, the partners decided to develop a common assessment of need. All the current priorities within each of the allocation policies were printed onto cards and as a group, the partners were asked to rank the categories in order of importance. There was some debate and discussion, for example around issues such as homelessness, but a broad framework was agreed.
A session was held with relevant stakeholders to discuss progress with the CHR and to seek assistance with some of the more difficult aspects of commonality. During the discussion one committee member suggested it would be simpler to have a full common allocation policy rather than just tweaking the existing ones. The partners all agreed this would be easier to achieve and would ultimately be simpler for applicants.
The harmonisation group met to develop the draft allocation policy. To help inform their work, guest speakers and other specialists were invited to give talks on key areas such as health assessment. The partners looked at other CHRs to see what approaches others were taking. With help from an independent consultant, liaison took place with directors and managers as well as committee members to maintain motivation. The partners worked hard to negotiate and compromise to achieve a draft policy.
What made it work?
To achieve these aspects of commonality, the partners sat round the table and discussed and debated different elements of their allocations policies. The whole process was facilitated by an independent consultant and the partners indicated that this was one of the key successes of this element of the CHR.
"It was a question of sitting down with the partners and looking at the allocations policy and saying 'we do this ... what do you do?' And agreeing which was the best way."
Other aspects of commonality that HOME Argyll has achieved are joint policy development for homelessness and antisocial behaviour and joint service provision such as a shared approach to translation and interpreting services.
CHR partnerships are increasingly seeing the development of common policies as a key stage in getting an effective CHR up and running. However, some partners may still have concerns about giving up individual policies or key elements of their policy which they are committed to. Key to success is ensuring there is a shared vision that partners are committed to and working towards.
In some areas where there has been reluctance to develop a full common allocation policy partners have been working towards developing a harmonised assessment of need. This introduces a shared pointing system for applications but allows individual landlords to allocate homes according to their own policy. This allows landlords to prioritise particular groups in different ways if they choose.
Example: Developing a harmonised assessment of need
In Edinburgh, a working group was established involving staff from RSLs interested in retaining a traditional approach to lettings but with harmonised.assessments. Getting the right mix of people involved in the group helped ensure different skills and perspectives from quite different organisations.
When the group began work it quickly became clear that there was a significant amount of similarity between how organisations allocated properties and managed lettings. Two aspects to the work were identified:
- refining the common elements, i.e. the areas of similarity that would be relatively straightforward to harmonise; and
- dealing with the elements where there was no obvious common ground.
Over 18 months, the group met regularly. It was labour intensive but there was continuity of staff throughout. There were various steps in the process.
Once the group agreed on the principle of having a common pointing system, the sub-groups (homelessness, harassment and so on) were agreed. The working group took a back-to-basics approach, and considered the legislative requirements for assessing housing need. This helped focus on what partners should be doing, rather than what they actually did.
Then the group looked at how points were currently being allocated by the different landlords. This was developed into a matrix. Obvious areas of common ground which were refined and agreed by the group. The group then looked at areas of divergence. There were some quite unique issues that were being pointed by some landlords, and these needed to be discussed. There were some areas of disagreement on definitions between landlords, e.g. on overcrowding. When the harmonisation was generally agreed the group revisited and refined the application form. This involved assessing whether all the questions were really needed and refining the answer requirements.
At key stages the group called meetings to update all partners, and consult on progress.
Developing a harmonised assessment of need with a common pointing system was not an easy process. It took time and focus by the working group. Those involved in the working group realised that people can be defensive about their own organisation's policies, and it took time to rationalise them. Throughout the process people had to ask themselves questions about their allocations policies, and what information they really needed. It made them consider what really mattered and what didn't.
Allowing others to decide whether to come on board with harmonisation until nearer the end of the process was important too as some people need to understand the detail of a policy or process before committing to it. It also has the benefit of a smaller, more focused group, being responsible for developing the process.