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Housing Ombudsman on Good KIM

By SHAC with additional commentary by Carl Davis

KIM in this context stands for knowledge and information management, and is the subject of a new Spotlight report by the Housing Ombudsman. The report is a combination of casework data and fresh, specially commissioned research.

The report is well-evidenced and reaches 21 logical recommendations for social landlords, ranging from the daily storage, processing and management of data, to the extra measures needed ahead of merger.

Housing Ombudsman Spotlight on: Knowledge and Information Management (KIM) – On the record

  1. Define the oversight role of governance for knowledge and information management.
  2. Implement a knowledge and information management strategy
  3. enchmark against other organisations’ good practice in knowledge and information management.
  4. Review safeguarding policies and procedures
  5. Train staff on the requirements of the Equality Act 2010
  6. Review internal guidance around recording vulnerabilities
  7. Develop organisational key data recording standard requirements that will ensure good records that s
  8. Make adherence to the minimum standard for knowledge and information management part of the service
  9. Have a clear categorisation system for ATIS/FOI requests
  10. Publish FAQs on websites and keep them updated
  11. Review existing databases for capability and capacity to record those key data requirements
  12. Train staff on using systems
  13. Ensure databases are easy to interrogate, and that the data can be extracted and used
  14. Schedule appropriate sensitive information reviews
  15. Stress test systems prior to change
  16. Undertake a risk assessment regarding knowledge and information shortfalls before the change
  17. Proactively investigate incoming datasets during mergers
  18. Establish clear data exception reporting processes
  19. Set out clear requirements of operatives before they are allowed to record an appointment as missed
  20. Conduct wastage analysis on missed appointments
  21. Implement an automated appointment reminder system

Download the full report here

Ubiquitous Bad Practice

The in-depth investigation was triggered by the realisation that

Whether [complaints concerned] service charges, anti-social behaviour, cladding or repairs – poor data and record keeping [by landlords] is ubiquitous.”

Housing Ombudsman

This will certainly be universally acknowledged by SHAC tenants and residents who have for years suffered at the sharp end of such practices. The Ombudsman goes on to express consternation not just at the problem itself, which landlords acknowledge as a shortcoming, but:

… the lack of actions planned or taken in light of this awareness – the responses were passive and indicated an underlying fatalism that good knowledge management is outside of their control. One senior leader told us it is “hit and miss” … but without any recognition that this was their responsibility, as part of their leadership duties, to address.”

Housing Ombudsman

Yet the Ombudsman itself helps perpetuate and excuse this approach. In referring to KIM as record keeping, the Ombudsman says:

While ‘record keeping’ is helpful shorthand, it is essentially about the maintenance of information. This does not do justice to the scale of the challenge.”

Housing Ombudsman

Elsewhere in the report, the Ombudsman remarks that achieving sound knowledge and information management “can feel like another thing on an already impossible to-do list”.

This categorisation of good KIM as presenting an exceptional challenge on already overburdened housing associations is in itself problematic. Why should good record keeping and information management be a bonus rather than a standard expectation?

Housing associations continue to enjoy large surpluses. There is no excuse for poor governance.

It is not a question of scale or complexity. Other industries are heavily data reliant, such as the banking sector. Within the UK alone, the number of card payments are expected to reach around 60 million per day within the next three years (Statista), and of course these are not the only transactions that flow through banks. Yet we expect precision to within a fraction of a penny, and the rapid correction of any errors.

It is not a question of hard choices. Excusing housing associations from meeting the same standards of KIM as we would expect of others seems to stem largely from the sector’s own public relations which harks back to their roots as charitable and socially responsible organisations whose resources are primarily for alleviating poverty, and where investing in sound administration would leave less for the care of service users. This is very far from the truth, especially for the big ones.

Housing associations like Clarion, Peabody, Notting Hill Genesis, and Hyde, have grown and grown, and can no longer see their philanthropic roots from their elevated roles as commercial developers for whom the care of tenants and residents is an encumbrance not a mission.

Nor is it a case of scarce resources. The Regulator of Social Housing’s Global Account show that the sector has an amassed sector operating surplus of £4.4bn (2022). Certainly enough to invest in digital technology, staff training, and supervision systems.

KIM also seems to be a problem only in relation to the tenant and resident facing services, not their own corporate accounts, which seem to be fine. But then again, housing association investors – banks and finance companies – would never tolerate the levels of sloppy record keeping that has become the norm for service users.

Authorities such as the Ombudsman, other agencies, and the media need to be far more outspoken and far more serious in challenging such attitudes and should never reinforce lower obligations on housing association boards and executives to deliver their services well.

Yet it is noteworthy that despite the ubiquitous nature of poor KIM, the Regulator of Social Housing cited this problem in just seven housing association governance downgrades over an 18 month period. It is not an issue that regulatory bodies are prepared to routinely condemn.

Landlord Resistance

The Ombudsman rightly points to the devastating human impact of poor knowledge and information mismanagement on tenants and residents:

Our investigations have found information mismanagement contributing to financial detriment, loss of heating and hot water, or residents being exposed to fire and other safety risks. Too frequently residents do not receive a service appropriately tailored to their needs because disabilities have not been recorded.”

Housing Ombudsman

What we must not do however is lose sight of the fact that underinvestment in digital systems, contingency planning, staffing levels, training and oversight, all result from strategic decisions taken by housing association boards and senior management. These organisations are deeply resistant to improving services for tenants and residents.

… it is sometimes only with the Ombudsman’s intervention that data failings are being acknowledged and addressed, months or years after the landlord was made aware. This is alarming.”

Housing Ombudsman

This is not news, and doesn’t just apply to data failings – it applies to any category of failing.

In almost every complaint to SHAC, the refusal of associations to engage with tenants and residents is a powerful, recurring theme. And it is experienced by councillors, members of Parliament, local authorities, and government, as well as the Ombudsman’s own staff.

Knowing this, recommendations which remain voluntary and are not backed up by any meaningful sanction are unlikely to produce the changes tenants and residents want and need.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Housing, has publicly berated bad practice by housing associations, but continues to invest public money in them

The Ombudsman rightly praises some of the exemplary cases in its report, but does not urge government to take a firmer stance and action against those who refuse to provide a good standard of service. And government continues to invest large sums from the public purse in the same super-sized, unaccountable landlords.

This continues even when they leave tenants to die alone for want of a welfare check, experience physical and mental health harm from mould and rodent infestations, be driven from their homes by anti-social behaviour, or become impoverished through service charge abuse.

Government characterises its regulatory regime as both carrot and stick, but the reality is that there is no stick – just a bucket full of carrots.

Hope for Disabled Tenants and Residents?

Carl Davis, a leading SHAC activist on disability says that the Ombudsman’s report definitely represents a watershed moment, particularly around KIM, disability, and social housing.

This theme has been the focus of pressure by SHAC and other campaign partners on the sector to be more proactive in identifying and dealing with existing and potential problems, and for landlords to engage with residents and housing workers to have a more open and inclusive conversation around disability issues and social housing.

SHAC’s Disability Visibility charter and other resources are available here

It really should be a turning point around this too, however it also has the potential to throw the cat amongst the pigeons. How the sector, collectively and at individual landlord level, chooses to interpret and act on the Ombudsman’s findings, and implement the KIM strategy in practice could shift the focus from disability to vulnerability, which in turn could be divisive if not managed and overseen carefully.

No matter how well intentioned this shift in focus, it presents a real risk of significantly increasing a ‘deserving versus undeserving’ approach to judgements on reasonable adjustments for disabled tenants and residents, and decisions on how to address support needs in social housing. These trends already exist, but could just become even more deeply embedded. That would be a regressive step.

Implementing a new approach on KIM and disability will need careful inclusive management and robust systems of scrutiny. Most of the sector leaders have shown little competence in this regard.

SHAC has shown time and again that disabled tenants and residents are at great risk of being caught between a rock and a hard place. They need to make their landlords aware of their disabilities to request reasonable adjustments but they cannot be sure of an empathetic response. Experience shows that they are regularly subjected to the opposite: bullying, harassment, discrimination, and marginalisation are common.

The Equality Act 2010 offers legal protections from such treatment, but at present, enforcement in social housing is near impossible for tenants and residents. Access to justice is a nice idea, but rarely achievable because the pathways are blocked by a lack of legal support and advocacy.

Housing associations are pushed by the regulatory and funding systems to prioritise commercial interests and profitability over tenant and resident needs. Viewed through this lens, reasonable adjustments for disabled tenants and residents are an additional burden and cost.

Landlords will therefore inevitably look for ways to implement the KIM strategy on the cheap. Determining who has vulnerabilities under what is being proposed without a supportive legal framework will lead them to favour those who are the easiest to help. This is usually the most ‘able, stable and well’, or those who cause them the least trouble. Money and resources will therefore be allocated to offer the maximum return with minimum effort and investment.

The Ombudsman reaches the conclusion that

An organisation’s culture and its governance significantly impacts how, when, and why, things go wrong. Where there is poor governance, there is often a lack of accountability, unclear roles and responsibilities … “

Housing Ombudsman

This is fine as a summary of housing asssociation culture, but needs to be explicitly extended to the sector as a whole, including its regulatory mechanisms. As the Ombudsman admits, landlords have regularly failed to provide information to the Ombudsman, or to meet its deadlines for complying with orders. Without better enforcement, they will continue doing so.

Tenant and Resident Mobilisation

Neither government departments nor housing regulatory bodies are acting effectively to change the behaviour of housing associations. The orders made by courts, the Regulator, or the Ombudsman are still too easily disregarded to the extreme frustration of tenants and residents.

Instead of waiting for those in power to fly to the rescue, tenants and residents must instead organise collectively to force change which makes the sector accountable and responsive to those who live in their properties.

SHAC is one of the campaign groups helping to empower tenants and residents. Our campaign themes include disrepairs, high rents and service charges, service charge abuse, and disability discrimination.

We bring people together around our campaign themes to organise protests and develop press and political lobbying, provide useful resources and guidance on challenging housing associations, and support people to safely withhold payment of rents or services for those in dispute.

We also hold branch meetings open to members of our larger groups. These allow our members to offer each other peer support, organise delegations to meet landlord executives, and direct our campaign priorities.

Join us here.

29 May 2023

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2 thoughts on “Housing Ombudsman on Good KIM”

  1. Thank you, Carl – there is also the disgusting issue of social landlords criminaly framing/convicting tenants – because tenants speak up for their tenancy and contractual rights.
    This is a serious issue that has not been clearly raised.
    If legitimate innocent social housing tenants can be illegally framed and convicted of Anti social and criminal behaviour for example – by their Social Landlords – ( Landlords inverting/perverting the use of the Justice process designed to prevent illegal behaviour by tenants but instead fostering it) .. what an uncilivilsed and archaic country and system of governance we have become.

    1. Absolutely John. Social landlords misuse their ASB powers to silence critics and ignore victims. Victims must prove ASB is happening, but landlords only need to claim it is.

      Housing associations in particular routinely misuse their ASB powers,by ‘self victimising,’ and feigning ‘alarm’ to legally intimidate, bully, and silence residents in disputes over issues like long unaddressed disrepair, tenants rights and reasonable adjustments..They think nothing of taking out injunctions against and even evicting critical residents to shrug off their own legal responsibilities and duties and get their own way. …

      This must be stopped.

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