by Aidan Kearney, Senior Training Officer
Tenant Participation, Tenant Involvement, Community Involvement,
Customer Involvement. Whatever your housing provider calls it, the principle of involving tenants in internal decision-making processes and using their feedback to shape the delivery of services is a vital part of modern-day social housing.
In days gone by, this was a farfetched notion. Most tenants felt their landlords’ made decisions and operated as they saw fit without external guidance or feedback. Those on the receiving end of the services could not contribute or provide information about how service delivery worked.
Thankfully, this has changed significantly as more and more housing providers are increasing their efforts to place tenants’ views at the forefront of service delivery. Housing providers in Northern Ireland are successfully implementing and evidencing their tenants’ input, and tenants and housing associations alike are reaping the rewards.
The Tenant Participation Strategy NI (2015-2020) and the appointment of Supporting Communities as the Independent Tenant Organisation went a long way to formalising the importance of tenant involvement in Northern Ireland. Seven years on, as we await an updated strategy, the housing sector has gone above and beyond what the original document asked of them.
The benefits of this work are clear to housing providers who are seeing improved services, better relationships, and happier staff, but what are the benefits for the tenants who volunteer their time and energy to get involved?
Increased Understanding of Social Housing
One of the first benefits we saw was increased knowledge and understanding of the ‘ins and outs’ of social housing. Supporting Communities’ training sessions share information on how housing providers operate and how they aim to improve using tenant feedback. Our course survey responses tell us that the overall level of housing awareness has increased dramatically among attendees.
Social Benefits and Being Part of a Team
With greater awareness comes a better understanding of organisational limitations. Involved tenants are more aware of what is possible and reasonable for housing associations to provide, and expectations are more realistic. We have also found that delivering courses to housing association staff members and tenants together creates a teamwork bond; instead of seeing each other in an ‘Us vs Them’ framework, the two groups work together to solve problems in ways that benefit everyone.
Tenant participation sessions also involve icebreakers and team-building exercises, so the social benefits of involvement were quickly apparent. The regular interaction panel members experienced became a vital part of their lives. The conversations and exchanges they shared during the work were valuable to them. This would only have happened within the structure of Tenant Participation.
New Transferable Skills
Many tenant participation exercises involve tenants examining specific aspects of an organisation’s processes and procedures, requiring them to learn new skills to carry out these duties and analyse performance data. Training and ongoing support to carry out these roles mean tenants gain experience preparing reports, feeding back information in a structured way, and providing informed recommendations based on research and investigation.
Being part of a tenant participation structure and contributing to business-related decision-making gives practical ‘hands-on’ experience that is very transferrable to other aspects of people’s lives and careers. Tenants have used this training as an educational springboard to go on to do other things. Many have added new skills to their CVs to enhance future employment prospects.
Recognition and Appreciation
In addition to improving services and gaining new skills, tenants feel appreciated when their work is recognised. Successful initiatives get publicised in local papers and on social media, which gives a sense of achievement and accomplishment. Some projects or teams can even be nominated for local, regional, and national awards, which further validates the good work being done, not to mention the opportunity to attend a ‘glitzy’ event to celebrate!
Local communities have experienced the knock-on effects of better tenant participation as well. Residents provide vital information to the landlord from others living in the area, giving richer levels of detail and insight than a staff member could do on periodic visits or through a survey. Communities can use this route to influence housing associations to shape services to the area’s needs. Being part of the process that leads to an improvement in the community instils a sense of pride in tenants that keeps them coming back!
Overall, tenants become involved for a variety of reasons. Whether they have a keen interest in improving their area/community, they answered a call from their landlord to become involved, or they came along with a friend one day and got hooked! Whatever the reason, tenant involvement is an integral part of the sector and has changed the way landlords deliver services in partnership with those who receive them.
Aidan Kearney is the Senior Training Officer at Supporting Communities.