Jon Upchurch presenting

How we’re working to encourage diverse voices in tenant engagement

First published by TPAS Cymru

At the end of Pride month where, across the globe, many different voices have been speaking up and speaking out about their partners, their lives and their beliefs, at Sovereign we’re thinking about how we can encourage more diversity in the interactions we have with our customers. 

At present, at Sovereign, we work with 29 heavily engaged residents. This means they are part of our governance structure: on our Resident and Board Partnership, on our Youth Panel or on our Scrutiny Coordination Group.

In addition to these residents who are closely engaged, we have a larger number whose engagement is much more casual: a loose team of around 30 semi-regular resident ‘scrutineers’ and we recruit new residents for each scrutiny project.

Teams from across the organisation engage further residents on an ad hoc basis to discuss service delivery or co-create new service offers. And our Customer Feedback team ensures residents are regularly surveyed about services they have recently received.

But the residents working in our governance structure have the biggest ongoing influence on Sovereign. Discounting our Youth Panel, the average age of these heavily engaged participants is 62, with 55% identifying as female and 45% as male. At present, none of these residents are from the BAME or LGBTQ+ communities.

Is this fully representative of Sovereign’s customers? We’re forced to recognise that it’s probably not.

We know from research the basic outcomes all our customers want from us. Things like: to be treated fairly and with respect; to live in a good quality, affordable home; that dealing with us is effortless and easy; to be kept informed; that we’ll do what we say we’ll do.

So, if all our customers want these outcomes, why is it a problem if membership of our engaged resident groups doesn’t accurately reflect the wider resident body?

The basic answer to that question, is that these universal customer outcomes will mean different things to different groups of people: what is effortless for one person, could be a real headache for another. Treating someone with respect must mean taking into account their ethnicity, age, sexual identity and so on. To be truly informed we need to hear from the widest range of customers possible.

So how do we invite in and encourage different voices and opinions?

When recruiting new members we often use ‘case study’ examples, encouraging our existing panel members to tell their stories, to commit to print or film the reasons why they think it’s important to be involved, sharing these via social media, and our customer portal. We make sure that we use eye-catching, diverse imagery and messaging to try to encourage different applicants via Facebook and direct email. And we explicitly state that we welcome applications from BAME, LGBTQ+ and younger residents.

But being a member of our panel is not an easy ask. It’s a three year commitment (with the option to stay for another three years) and it involves reading reports, sitting in meetings, and thrashing out issues. It takes liaising with senior members of Sovereign teams, talking about complicated and emotive subjects.

Our customers probably ask themselves: “What’s in it for me? At the end of a working day, a caring day or simply an exhausting day, why should I do Sovereign’s job for them?”

It’s true: we get paid to come to work, we’re given cash in exchange for our mental or physical labours. But what’s in it for our customers when they give us their time and opinions?

We know, for example, that not everyone can travel to talk with us. Even offering to pay expenses is too much hassle. Now that the restrictions of Covid are lifting we’re going to need to get back out there - go to their streets, where they can see us, holding pop up events. But we’ll never get round them all – we have 60,000 homes and we’re growing.

The pandemic has taught us that technology can make things easier for people to get involved – we’ve seen good evidence that this has worked for our Youth Panel – who join meetings from home while cooking dinner or when they’ve just got in from work. They’ve told us they wouldn’t have joined without this flexibility. So this is one way to encourage more participation.

But we also know we need to engage a wider range of people on a more ad hoc basis. We’re aiming to boost our regular STAR customer surveys, which are carried out three times a year, by sending out more short, sharp questionnaires on specific subjects via our portal – rewarding people for giving up their time with vouchers or other encouragements.

We also want to make better use of sessions on Facebook Live or similar, where again we can tackle some of the specific ‘big issues’ like repairs, damp and mould, environmental concerns or fire safety. Having adult conversations, where all our customers feel reassured that they are heard – and that their opinions will have an impact on the future of our organisation – is essential to Sovereign’s success as a sustainable housing association.

Again, that takes time. We don’t want to put our people up on a stage so that they can get ripped to pieces. Taking on a public forum, even if it is online, takes training and an assurance on both parts that we can ‘flip the tape’. There’s no good being in a room, virtual or otherwise, where one group is essentially shouting – “You’re rubbish!” – and the other is just defending themselves. We need mediation – we want to know: what do customers want us to do to get better? Do we need different solutions for different groups of customers? This is where looking at the sector, learning from others, taking the expertise of organisations like Tpas is essential.

Doing these public events will take a leap of faith on both sides. Our people need to know that they have the power to make change happen. And our customers need to know that the time they spend talking with us about the future is well spent – and that their input will affect their lives and their loved ones’ lives for the better.