Tenant Scrutiny – an Opportunity to Drive Real Improvement

Have you ever noticed how when one ‘junket’ stops another one starts?  And usually it’s the same people who reappear labelled as something else.

Well, as we all know, one of the best things that Eric Pickles has done since coming to office was to get rid of the Audit Commission (AC).  He deserves great praise for that alone.

It seems however that some ex-AC folks are finding themselves a nice little niche in the Tenant Scrutiny world.  The line they are ‘peddling’ is that Tenant Scrutiny is the ‘new’ Audit Commission.  These ex-AC folks are running ‘training’ courses or speaking at seminars showing tenants how to do inspections the way they used to do them.  I guess it shows that these ‘exes’ still don’t want to go get a real job.  Tenant scrutiny panel members should ignore these people.

The AC- style training suits some housing organisations who do not want to improve; they just want keep the board happy by feeding them inspection reports that say what they want them to hear.  Alternatively, they have someone squirreled away in an obscure office who ‘creates’ figures that suit their narrative -“All is well”

The really worrying thing is that some senior leaders of housing organisations hold a view that the AC actually did some good.  They completely miss the fact that someone else used to do for them what they should have always been doing for themselves.  It reminds me of the TV programme ‘Undercover Boss’.  Forgive me, but isn’t that the most revealing programme on our attitude to strategic leadership.  The programme shows that the most senior leader in an organisation can go out into their own business, do some field work and not be instantly recognised.  Of course these same leaders will normally be surrounded by Red Amber Green (RAG) status reports and financial projections but not have any idea about what is actually happening in their own business itself.

So, what should tenant scrutineers actually be looking for?   Well, firstly it is important to understand that all they need to know is within their grasp.  They just have to learn how to see it.   This is sometimes referred to as ‘making the invisible, visible’.  Secondly, all tenant scrutineers should insist that they must know the source of any data they are being shown and be in a position to verify it is valid.   The data must be shown as it occurs over time not artificially segmented to suit financial or performance management unit reporting periods. And definitely the approach whereby this month this year is compared to the same month last year is to be abandoned if used.  There should be no benchmarking of one organisation against another using data.  That is a sure way to achieve mediocrity.  Thirdly, scrutineers need to engage in much more practical onsite examination of the work itself.  There is no substitute for doing this.  It is amazing what it is possible to find out in a very short space of time.   For example, it takes very little time to establish that the work chaos and unnecessary delays are often actually created by dynamic scheduling software focusing on targets.  (You know, the junk so beloved by the AC.)

Now, the approach suggested immediately above will scare the pants off of the AC fans.  You know the sort; they just loved their three star statuses; of course they know how they really got them and that they are nothing to do with giving a good service to tenants.  So, tenant scrutineers, don’t allow yourselves to be bamboozled by the AC fans.  Follow the three points I have outlined above and you will be more informed and more in control than you will ever have been before.

There is no need for a ‘bogey man’ role to be adopted as advocated by some.  What a negative perception of how to achieve excellent housing services.  The real challenge is to show tenant scrutiny panel members what a proper performance learning mechanism would look like.  Similarly, board members should not want to hear from external inspectors, they too should get out of their board room and establish for themselves what is actually happening not what they are being fed by senior executives.  They need to learn the truth for themselves.

That would mean everyone doing joined-up learning across the system.  Tenants, staff and board members scrutinising and more importantly learning what is actually happening and why.  Then scrutineers and staff can take action based on, (as Owen Buckwell, the innovative a Global Award winning housing leader from Portsmouth CC often refers to as), ‘learned wisdom’ not ‘received wisdom’.

It is absolutely right that tenants, as customers, should be involved properly in establishing what is actually happening and why in their housing organisations.  Many tenants I know are up for the challenge this creates.  They also need to be involved in improving performance, not finding ways to make the housing organisation board and senior leaders feel happy about themselves.

To conclude, unless tenant scrutineers are shown how to study their organisations properly as a system and NOT some version of the AC regime then we are doomed to continue the dismal downward spiral on performance.  Tenants will continue to lose.   It’s the existing AC based inspection regime that’s wrong and needs to be scrapped.  Getting tenant scrutiny panels to do what the AC did are simply the wrong things to do.  There is no right way to do the wrong thing.

If tenants learn how to look behind beyond the management mumbo jumbo fed to them by officers and find out what is really going on, tenant scrutiny could be a massive opportunity to drive huge improvement. The tenants I meet are capable and intelligent people who are passionate about making things better. I wish them well in their new role

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