Keeping the conversation about social outcomes live
Take Way Line
One of the hardy annual debates in the social housing sector is how far into social development we go, or to what extent are we – preference of the current government – should focus on development and being efficient landlords of housing for the less well off. All too often, in my experience, the boards of social housing organisations miss out on the opportunity to keep this vital, indeed existential conversation alive at the board level. It’s worth thinking again what the social purpose of each housing association is and what our ‘theory of change’ is to deliver on our that purpose. Point is not so much the choice – although that obviously is important – it’s keeping the debate going that’s the critical thing.
‘This Other Stuff’
‘When I was growing up, it was enough for councils to build houses for people. After that, the locals sorted things out for themselves. They created their own community. I don’t know about all this other stuff we do now.’
By ‘other stuff’, my interlocutor was referring to work by social landlords to help neighbourhoods come together, to build social bonds, perhaps to put up some community infrastructure be it utilitarian, like bus shelters, bike racks, kids’ play areas, or aesthetic, such as community art. Housing Plus, community development, neighbourhood renewal, place-shaping – the terms are endless – and seem to change every few years, each inflecting in a slightly different way the challenges of social fragmentation, worklessness, low skills and aspirations, challenging behaviour, mental health, health generally, social isolation and so on.
My interlocutor was my electrician at the time, come to do a bit of work for me, but, you know, over a cup of tea, you get talking. And his view is a common enough one, you may rightly say. In this case, our friend was not only an electrician: he had been a senior electronics engineer for a global telecom company and after having downsized his life, earned a downsized living as a sparky. But he was also a board member of a large housing association. So, his view wasn’t just ‘joe-public’. I would tend to take a more interventionist view about what to do about the social fragmentation challenge than he, famously derided by one previous housing minister as all ‘face-painting on benefits’.
Landlord or Change Agent?
We were, if you like, on opposite sides of perhaps the great divide in the social housing world: how far do you go to change poverty and deprivation. Do you stick to your core function and be good landlord – certainly the policy of the last couple of governments – and develop and managing your stock? Or, do you say being a good landlord is essential, but it’s not enough if we want to fix some enduring social challenges.
Well, money is part of the story. If you’ve got loads of spare cash you can go for the community dimension, but in a tighter economic and financial environment, sticking to the knitting seems like the more prudent thing to do. More than that, where there is such a chronic housing shortage isn’t the agenda just to build more and stop thinking about all this fluffy stuff?
But I don’t think that’s the main point. For me, anyway, what’s interesting is the extent to which senior staff teams and boards are keeping this conversation live. And the question here is what are we being a good landlord for. What, if you like, are the outcomes we are expecting from good land lording, and how do we know we are delivering them? The social and community housing sector is (clue’s in the name) a social sector: it has a social purpose, one assumes. It implies change, a change to a better social situation.
Building housing stock and being an effective landlord could have all kinds of unintended negative outcomes if we don’t track this stuff. What impact does a preference for green field developments have, for example, on the regeneration of dilapidated brownfield-replete town and city centres and their sense of community and shared space? What impact does smaller floor-space sizes have on stress levels and mental health? Or, perhaps closer to the knitting, what do declining income, health and aspiration levels have on the stability of our tenancies? How far do you go?
Theories of Change
I don’t only work in the social housing sector, of course. One of the other sectors, I work in is international development. There, you can’t get money from the UK’s Department of International Development, or indeed any other reputable donor, if you don’t have a theory of change, or rather a Theory of Change, because it’s a whole Big Thing. But it’s also a simple idea, which says you need to declare upfront what social change you’re expecting to deliver and how your intervention will lead, not only to certain outputs, like people fed or farmers trained, or women’s groups started, but how those activities will impact the lives of the target communities and ultimately on that society’s economic and social status. In other words, a Theory of Change is a hypothesis that is central to the design of your project or programme, and your subsequent monitoring and evaluation work sets out to show how well that hypothesis stacks up.
But I don’t see that in the UK social housing sector. To be tough on a sector I love and have worked in for years, it’s as if it doesn’t really know why it’s doing what it’s doing because it doesn’t have a roadmap and, as the Cheshire cat said to Alice: if you don’t know where you going to, any way will do. Does the social housing sector need to stop thinking like Alice and start listening to the cat?
One thing the electrician and I would have in common on this question is that housing association boards need to keep these conversations about purpose live and, whatever they come up with, assess, measure, talk about and tell the world about the difference that is being made. Because if you don’t, you will likely fail to see what’s really going on and you may risk becoming irrelevant. He knew all about that, my friend: he had been an engineer with Nokia.
- Are we clear what our social purpose is, what difference are we trying to achieve in our communities?
- How do we think we achieve that change: what’s our theory of change?
- What are we doing as a board to ensure we stay socially relevant (and not just viable)?