Raising the tide in social housing: Why cross-sector collaboration is needed

Keith Butler | 14 June 2023

Recently, we wrote about the changing face of the ideal housing leader and took a look at some often overlooked, but valuable skills that leaders in social housing must possess to thrive in today’s everchanging landscape; having a holistic understanding and appreciation of the wider organisation, being able to juggle priorities in the face of conflicting demands, and building effective external partnerships. In this series we’ll take a look some of these, exploring why they matter, how they add value to the sector and, most crucially, how you can identify the leaders who possess them. First up is building effective partnerships… 

We all know collaboration important

It fuels effective decision-making. There is a lot of truth in the saying, “a problem shared is a problem halved.” When we have a challenge at work, we will ask our colleagues, try to gain a different perspective, explore other people’s experiences, and talk through possible solutions. It presents opportunity for all parties to learn from one another’s’ successes and failures.

But unlike other sectors, collaboration in the social housing sector goes beyond this; it holds huge value for organisations and the wider sector -particularly when collaboration happens through external partnerships. It’s a much tighter industry than most, and all who work within it tend to have common aims and challenges (too many to list here!). Therefore, there should less barriers to sharing information and collaborating for the overall good of the sector and the residents.

This is particularly true when looking at large, complex projects; collaboration is just more efficient. Resources are stretched in the housing sector and there are many competing demands for time, money and effort. Collaboration can help divide up a heavy workload into more manageable chunks. Additionally, if the sector pools data on buildings and residents, then more effective and relevant decisions can be made.

I spoke with Jenny Danson, a Non-Executive Director at Aspire and head of the Proptech Innovation Network, to get her views. She believes that technology and data is at the heart of the matter, drawing the analogy that social housing is currently operating as 1600 corner shops. But if we work together, share data where appropriate (privacy laws permitting) to build up to a macro level to allow more effective analysis, then we can operate more as a supermarket. This will increase efficiency levels and reduce costs, without necessarily losing the personal touch that is important to many residents.

So, with all the evident benefits, why aren’t isn’t collaboration more widespread?

    1. Time: leaders in the social housing sector often talk about how there are so many issues to address within their own organisation that they simply do not have the capacity to look at anything else. Whilst this is understandable, by taking a step back and investing time in working collaboratively, it could actually free up resources in the longer term.
    2. Wariness: It could be that leaders in social housing do not want to share their experiences or performance statistics for fear of criticism and being shown to be less effective than other organisations. This nervousness is understandable to some extent, particularly given the level of public scrutiny and publicity around any issues or mistakes made, combined with the impact of the regulator. Or it could even be that there is an element of self-preservation, with increased openness and collaboration potentially leading to the only real threat to organisations in the sector: that of merger, which typically results in leaders being displaced.
    3. Knowledge: Even if leaders in social housing can see the benefits of collaboration, it can be difficult to know where to start and where to go to. Chris Mackenzie-Grieve, a NED at Your Housing Group, told me that local authorities can be the catalyst for housing associations working together more closely as there is a natural symbiotic relationship. Under such a model, the focus needs to be on how to address wider issues that are common to both, such as healthcare, wellbeing, anti-social behaviour and the environment.

A rising tide lifts all boats, so for the industry to progress, social housing needs leaders who are can see the bigger picture and who are curious, proactive in networking and engaging with external stakeholders, open to challenge and collaboration, and adept at leveraging data to drive strategy while remaining mindful of the people they serve. Organisations need to make sure that these skill sets are encouraged and embedded in their leaders and built into management development plans and external recruitment processes.

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