Kevin Cross

Digital by default? Ensuring online inclusion for housing association tenants

Our key takeaways from the recent 'Digital by Default' report for housing providers. 

Woman working on her laptop

There’s plenty of food for thought in this year’s ‘Digital by Default’ report. Published by Housing Technology magazine, the major online survey polled executives from over 170 housing providers. Its findings offer some revealing insights into the pivotal role of technology in mediating relationships between associations and their tenants.

So what’s the top line? The report signals clearly that Digital Inclusion (DI) offers some big upsides for housing associations. With so many essential services being exclusively delivered online, getting connected genuinely makes a difference to tenants, who say that simply being online makes them feel a part of modern society. It’s a real enabler, giving people – who may feel marginalised by factors like unemployment, low income or old age – a much-valued sense of control over their lives.

Equally, DI is a cornerstone of every forward-looking association’s business strategy. In this blog we’ve previously looked at the impact of Universal Credit, and the threat it presents to associations who must focus more of their own resources on rent collection. Providing internet access radically improves customer service while driving down the costs of communicating with tenants. Estimating a difference of £14 between the costs of an online and equivalent face-to-face transaction, the survey points to potential savings of over £2 million for a typically association processing 170,000 separate transactions per year.

There are plenty of positive DI case studies – like one major group serving London and the Midlands that cut its rent arrears by £1.65 million since moving rent payment and arrears processes to an online system. Similarly, another of the UK’s largest providers reported saving over £200K in the first year after shifting residents’ maintenance requests and management online.

So there’s no real debate that DI definitely makes a difference. Underlining this viewpoint, research carried out by Tinder Foundation shows that organisations with developed digital inclusion strategies enjoy clear, measurable financial benefits through improved efficiencies and economies of scale.

Against this backdrop, then, it’s a source of concern that over a third of housing associations surveyed don’t currently have any kind of coherent DI plans in place. There are several factors hindering providers’ inclusion activities, not least the costs of IT equipment, broadband connectivity and integration.

Aside from these obvious pinch-points, one of the most common issues cited by survey respondents is a concern about how ‘digital by default’ services might affect vulnerable tenants. And in this category we must include individuals who struggle with a range of literacy challenges like dyslexia.

Offering a PC and web access is of limited use for tenants who struggle with everyday reading and writing tasks. And that’s why it’s vital for associations to factor in the provision of extra supports – like easy-to-use screen reader software – to ensure their services can genuinely benefit the widest possible audience.


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