A Digital Service for Monitoring Affordable Housing Provision

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

Southwark Council wants to ensure that affordable housing is available to the people who need it. Southwark Council, together with the MHCLG and other organisations, such as housing associations, want to be able to better use data to make evidence-based and transparent decisions around the allocation and usage of affordable housing.

Maintaining sufficient levels of affordable housing is vital, but at present there is no detailed procedure for monitoring the ongoing provision affordable housing units, once they’ve been delivered. This creates the potential for inappropriate occupation and breaches to go unidentified, both of which could lead to the number of affordable units unlawfully being reduced.

Affordable housing is generally secured by S106 legal agreement and registered as a charge on the land. However, it is a highly inefficient process for residents and lawyers to identify which units are ‘affordable’, for purposes of conveyancing. Additionally, all affordable units are also recorded manually and, in the case of London Boroughs, sent to the LDD, for reporting purposes.

Both of the above administration tasks are very intensive administration processes, across organisations, and, consequently, open to a significant element of error. Any solution will look to address these.

The discovery phase will explore what a digital service for the ongoing monitoring of affordable housing provision might look like. We will work with partners to ensure that broad UX is undertaken and outcomes are beneficial to all.

As with previous projects, we will use the Digital Marketplace (DOS), to procure an external company to lead this project. We have found this to be an extremely effective method of procurement, which ensures an agile, iterative approach to developing services around user needs.

The work will follow an established pattern:

Inception (1 week)

A short inception phase will lay the groundwork for the discovery and ensure value is delivered at the earliest opportunity. It will also:

  • review of any previous work
  • produce a user research plan and begin engagement with users and stakeholders
  • agree a set of principles for working with partners and stakeholders
  • facilitate a roadmapping workshop.

Road Mapping (1 week)

This will allow partners to:

  • align behind a vision and goals for work
  • define the capabilities to meet these goals
  • identify the users whose needs we’re trying to meet
  • identify the dependencies for successful delivery
  • define and prioritise the scope of work

User Research and Technical Discovery (6 weeks)

Taking the user research plan created in the inception phase, there will be a series of interviews as well as contextual and observational studies with users and stakeholders. In addition to user research, we will carry out a technical discovery to assess technology

solutions for a new service.

Based on the standard timescales for this work, it will be completed within eight weeks and deliver a set of outputs including:

  • a product roadmap
  • a list of high-level epics and prioritised user needs
  • insights from user research and artefacts, such as user journey maps
  • a report summarising our findings from the technical discovery work
  • recommendations for the next phase of work.

The work will be in-line with the Government Service Manual and Technology Code of Practice, maintaining quality and standards through:

  • peer review of code and content
  • inspecting and adapting our work to build on good practice
  • designing for continuous improvement

It has become clear that an unknown number of properties have been transferred from the affordable housing sector, to the private market. This can be the result of genuine error, but also for more cynical reasons.

Whilst it is not yet possible to quantify the financial and social costs of this problem, one required outcome of this discovery will be a business case, illustrating the ‘cost’ to the government sector, as well as the public. A recent court case took over a year, cost in excess of £1m and wasn’t able to return all of the ‘lost’ units. Therefore, the potential benefits to this work, which will be costed, are:

  • Consistent and better presented evidence base to enable more efficient and accurate monitoring and enforcement practices
  • The timely identification of potential breaches, enabling their return to our AH stock.
  • Act as a deterrent and prevent breaches from occurring in the first instance.
  • The capture of accurate information to better inform future legal agreements and policy.
  • The reduced need to build an increased number of homes to off-set those lost, albeit unknown thereby increasing the total number available
  • Efficient and timely allocation of available units to those in genuine need.

All councils are required to report their housing delivery figures, to a more centralised authority. In the case of London, this is the LDD. This is an almost exclusively manual process, open to error and hugely costly, in terms of officer hours, especially when collating data from all 32 boroughs. A benefit of this work is that accurate and standardised data can be automatically transferred to a centralised collecting authority and help the GLA to reach their ambitious goal of digital planning in London by February 2020, and wider benefits at a national level.

It is intended that this 8 week piece of work will help to change behavioral patterns and mindset, in terms of digital services, within the council. This will benefit not only departments directly relevant to this project, but councils as a whole.

A number of partners to this proposal are other councils, mainly London based, but the primary partner is Fareham Borough Council. This will give a good, base, understanding of user needs in both a large city and at a more local council level outside of London.

All partners have obviously signaled their intention, but they will be given the opportunity to be involved from day one of inception.

Fortnightly show and tell sessions will enable all to shape the research and outcomes. However, more digital tools, such as a Google drive, slack, trello and ‘hangouts’, will facilitate more instant project management and communications.

An existing MoU with FCC, will ensure that all work is applicable to other organisations and authorities.

Any outcome would be based on a common data, provide clearly documented APIs for data transfer and would sit within an ecosystem of other digital tools being developed. This cross-authority solution would be the key to unlocking wider transformation of the planning system.

By working with partners and using research and UX techniques the project outcomes will:

  • develop a “to-be” service map, tested through low fidelity prototyping
  • Outline the intended functionality, flows and technical considerations to create the new service
  • A summary of findings and insights
  • Design principles and indicative costs / benefits to support the creation of an alpha version of the service

Central to this project will be comprehensive user engagement, with detailed user experience research. This element is crucial for outlining the true, rather than perceived, problems and their potential solutions.

The conclusions to this research will be an ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ road maps. The technical discovery stage will then be able to give a clear understanding of how to build and scale a new digital monitoring tool, through tested and costed proof of concept designs. A future Alpha would then build on these findings.

As mentioned, the financial, resource and social cost of the problem to be solved, is, as yet, unknown. Therefore, for this to be a truly meaningful piece of work, with practical applications to multiple government departments, one of the principle outcomes must be a business case. This case will aim to define the scale and cost of the problem – to councils and developers / housing associations of ‘lost’ units and the social impact of reduced provision. It would aim to achieve this while greatly reducing the administration burden, increasing data quality and enabling real time insights.

One element which will need to be addressed is the cost to authorities of manually recording and reporting on affordable units both delivered and retained as such. Currently, this is a manual process, carried out by each authority and, where relevant, fed upwards. A very intensive process and open to human error, this itself can lead to incorrect figures. Any outcome would look to standardise the required data with a view to automating its transfer to the relevant central authority.

Affordable housing is relevant to a number of stakeholders, including local, regional and national government, developers, housing associations, charities and the public. Therefore, the ‘users’ to be engaged are:

  • Housing officers
  • Policy officers
  • Planning officers
  • Housing Associations / RSLs
  • Developers
  • Charities
  • Residents and the public

This above list is not exhaustive, but it should be borne in mind that in a short discovery phase of a project, there is not the time to engage with a hue list of actors. However, as stated in answer to question one, this will be agreed upon at the project inception stage. A number of research interviews will be set up, across users and partners.

Following established patterns of previous projects, an open, collaborative approach means we can harness all the capabilities needed to deliver a successful project. Regular updates to stakeholders will be published, through week notes and open show and tells will be held after every sprint. This will give partners visibility of the work as it evolves. In addition to these more formal interactions, we will make use of other digital tools which allow for less formal working practices, but also more immediate and live interaction and project governance.

This rhythm and way of working is designed to sustain momentum and motivation amongst those involved. It also allows for an agile and iterative methodology. Any successes, errors or adjustments are very quickly identified and the project adapted accordingly, without loosing time.

The objective of user research is essentially to determine what the actual issues, common to all, are, and what a solution, relevant to all, might look to achieve. The results of this will then inform further work at the technical discovery stage. Research may look to establish the following:

  • What is the extent of the problem
  • How and where is information currently held
  • What information and data sources are required
  • Can this data be amalgamated and standardised

We would be grateful for any support in publicising this project with other authorities and generating interest.

We would also like to request senior level training and guidance on:

  • the Digital Marketplace and how and when it should be used.
  • Agile project management and the benefits over traditional ‘waterfall’ management and governance.

I can confirm that we have neither sought nor been granted funding for this project in the past.