“It's a humanity thing.”
An independent evaluation of the Homelessness Reduction Act has recommended local authorities to get feedback on service user experiences. We ask ‘Why?’ ‘Why Not?’ and ‘How do we make this happen?’
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government recently published their Independent evaluation of the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act. Amongst the headlines, the Prevention Duty was lauded as bringing about the most positive outcomes, through with challenges for those ‘with complex needs.’ Access to affordable housing remains, as ever, a challenge.
What caught our eye was the recommendation for local authorities to ‘get input and feedback on service user experiences to avoid disconnect in perceptions of service quality and understand priorities for service improvement.’ We asked our panel of people with lived experience of disadvantage why this was important, why it doesn’t happen anyway, and how can local authorities make this happen!
Expert Link is a peer-led organisation which aims to ensure people with lived experience are treated as equal partners in decisions made about their lives. So you can imagine why we believe feedback from ‘service users is important. It’s ethical and effective. And empowering!
Should local authorities, and in particular Housing Options teams, see it the same way? Of course! Most people working within Housing Options will want to ensure that the service they are providing is as good as it can be. And feedback is a gift that can support that.
“These people care. They want to help. It’s a humanity thing. You want to know what’s going on.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“It’s just what they think the service users need…There’s a revolving door of putting money in and it’s not working. I don’t see the point of putting money in and it not working. I see that they need to find out what they need and implement it.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“When the local authority are looking at savings and efficiency, it’s important they get the views of our people. They will get brilliant ideas.” Member of National Advisory Panel
It may not be a case of just refining a few things here and there though. As with many organisations, there can be practices that can be detrimental to peoples well-being, and without understanding these there is potential that stigmatising attitudes towards people approaching the local authority for support can become commonplace amongst a workplace culture.
“You get workers who abuse service users, and none of that would get found out.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“It’s important if they’re genuinely bothered about ending homelessness. Most homelessness agencies can get away with doing a shit job, and because they’re analysing their own performance it can continue forever, without really reducing homelessness. No one else is going to challenge it. This stuff is really wrong. This is dishonest and will not help our country.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“If you’re not taking input from people you’ll get a self-analysing sector, and staff will keep saying that homeless people are just useless and incompetent and that’s why they are homeless.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“Ideologically the majority of the workers genuinely believe people deserve to be homeless. That they take drugs as a lifestyle choice. If you’ve got mental health you just need to pull yourself together…They are deeply held ideologies.” Member of National Advisory Panel
Utilising service-user involvement will bring clear improvement to evaluating the effectiveness of a Housing Options team. It also has the benefit of providing an apolitical analysis of a service, rather than being drawn into political debates about the reasons why local authorities aren’t providing an appropriate service to people where this is the case.
“Local authorities have a political agenda, whoever’s in power. It’s important to get people who are living and breathing and in the service to give their point of view. It gets rid of the politics.” Member of National Advisory Panel
‘Conducting research with service users is not without its challenges and local authorities may argue that they have limited resources to devote to this in the context of other demands arising from the Act. That notwithstanding, a greater understanding of local service user experiences can only be of benefit to the effectiveness of delivery under the Act, and we recommend that local authorities undertake or commission research to provide this understanding.’ Evaluation of the Implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act: Final Report (MHCLG)
Despite the clear benefits to ensuring service users have the opportunity to provide local authorities with feedback, many, many local authorities do not do so. Why not?
We believe a key reason is fear; fear of having difficult conversations with people, and fear of finding out truths about work performance. But this is unhelpful. There are many organisations, including Expert Link, who can and have facilitated productive discussions which work towards a common purpose of improving support.
“I think they’re scared of what they’re going to hear.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“They’ll say they won’t have the resources, but I just think they don’t want to hear those difficult answers. They’re just scared, and they shouldn’t be. There’s so many organisation that can help them. If the local authority here said ‘can you get a panel of experts together?’ we’d say yeah. It would be so easy.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“In [ ] they do ask for service user feedback. We’ll get invited to various meetings, we’ve met with the Mayor of London, the Rough Sleeping team and various other things. They do listen.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“Some local authorities are great, pushing it, great. We need to get a consistency across the country so there is some kind of real involvement, not just focus groups… It’s not about ‘here’s our policy what do you think,’ it’s about creating the policy together.” Member of National Advisory Panel
We do not deny that there are resource limitations for local authorities. But ultimately, arguments around limited resources are not supporting individuals to meet their aspirations and obtain accommodation. Local authorities have legal duties to support people, and these need to be met in the fullest.
“[They say] We don’t have enough money to follow the law so we’ll break the law. The law says you can’t do x y and z – it’s no excuse to continue doing what you shouldn’t be doing.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“The responsibility is down to the local authority. They have specific duties. It’s a cop out […] It’s a political argument, but you do have a duty. I don’t put my application in to number 10, I put it into [COUNCIL]” Member of National Advisory Panel
How do we make this happen?
So how can a local authority get feedback from service users? As a core principle, any feedback must be gathered independently, to offer a true insight into the practices.
“You should get independent people to get this feedback so it’s honest. If someone’s abusing you, you aren’t going to complain to that abuser because you’re scared.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“What you guys get shown is them on the best day. It’s important to understand there is a whole other side that people experience that is really damaging.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“When they visit you can bet that people are cleared out the way. You need to find a way of doing it where services aren’t making it look better than it really is.” Member of National Advisory Panel
A number of different mechanisms could be adopted:
1) Independent peer reviewers from different services (including competitor services) who will have an understanding of the context the service is working in
“Peer reviews from other agencies reviewing and assessing could be a good way almost like an appraisal of services” Member of National Advisory Panel
2) Independent mechanisms whereby users of the Housing Options service can provide confidential feedback, such as a hotline or online review portal.
“What about a whistleblowing number for people to contact?” Member of National Advisory Panel
3) Improve the use of the HAST advisors, who bring expertise and authority within the sector
“The HAST advisors either come from housing or homeless background. They know what’s going on, but it’s difficult. They need to challenge more. I think local authorities’ Housing Options teams, would listen to them.” Member of National Advisory Panel
4) Adopt a Mystery Shopper approach, involving people with lived experience of homelessness in the area
“There should be this mystery shopper. To know what’s going on you should go undercover.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“We had the local councillor out with us shadowing, took them into Housing Options. Front line staff talked to her like shit. Frontline staff didn’t have a clue who it was!” Member of National Advisory Panel
5) Adopt an accreditation scheme, which works with people who have used the Housing Options team to thoroughly evaluate different aspects of the service.
“Most services in [PLACE] have an accreditation thing, prove they have psychologically informed environment, etc. We go in and speak to service user group, we’ll go in and speak to people find out how people felt. Do they feel safe? Then they [SERVICE] get a badge to say they’re MD (multiple disadvantages) friendly.” Member of National Advisory Panel
There are plenty of ways that local authorities can positively respond to the key recommendation from the review. Let's support them to make it happen!