Brave new world of engagement

By Martin Armstrong

The housing sector has a long track record in tenant engagement. Housing associations are at the very centre of the communities they serve and, as a result, are often well placed to build strong relationships with the people who live there.

We are also fortunate that here in Scotland, where almost a quarter of households live in social housing, tenant participation is at the heart of Scottish Government housing policy.

But as we look to the future through the lens of an increasingly digital world, one of the big questions for our sector, and for others, is how we can best engage and involve our tenants, including young people and those who have traditionally been harder to reach.

It is that challenge which led Wheatley Group to commission The Democratic Society to carry out an international study of best practice in engagement. We were determined to capture new thinking from around the world, going beyond the housing and care sectors and learning from what is happening across all public and private sectors.

The goal was to define and develop a new relationship with customers, shifting the balance of power from executive command and control to decision making by communities, families and individuals. And to do this by encouraging customers to become more closely involved in the decisions taken about their homes and the services they receive, as well as the programmes and activities aimed at providing them with better lives.


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The aim is to help people build new skills and confidence, to better engage and empower them to make things happen for themselves, and in the process creating and supporting stronger, more resilient communities.

The Democratic Society’s work and contributions were drawn from around the world – from California to London, Gothenburg to Minnesota, and Rio de Janeiro to Vienna – and was the first of its kind to be undertaken in the UK. It involved organisations and institutions ranging from Stanford University to the respected think tank RSA and the International Association of Public Participation USA. Crucially, it engaged the real experts: social housing and mid-market tenants, the people we work for in care and factored homeowners. They all had their say.

The resulting report, published on 29 January, throws a new light on the relationship organisations strive to develop with their customers. It emphasises that we should adopt fresh, new engagement approaches, tools and techniques – all of which are outlined in the report.

I am confident this report will stimulate discussion and debate and, I hope it will inspire other business leaders to put customers at the heart of all they do, recognising meaningful engagement as a mainstream priority, not an optional extra.

Good engagement is good business. By truly listening and responding to the people we serve, we will create not only excellent services, but also outstanding levels of customer satisfaction.

Martin Armstrong is chief executive of Wheatley Group.

To read the international engagement research commissioned by Wheatley Group and CIH, go to http://www.wheatley-group.com/democracystartsathome

Pictured:Wheatley Group Chairman Alastair MacNish, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP, Wheatley Group tenants Cathy McGrath, Lara Lasisi and Margaret McMillan, Michelle Brook of the Democratic Society , GHA Chair Bernadette Hewitt.