19 May 2021

Beyond engagement

As tenant engagement lead at Cadwyn, I spend my days thinking about how the organisation can place tenants at the heart of service and business delivery, and how to go about creating the mechanisms needed to achieve this. The right to participate is crucial to our sector, however there are many barriers (real and perceived) that are often aligned with equality and social justice issues that prevent the true capturing of tenant voice in housing.

Although I am relatively new to the sector having only been at Cadwyn since September 2020, I am no stranger to the sector’s struggles with tenant engagement.

Pre-pandemic, a common reality for many housing associations (certainly not all!) was that there were a small number of heavily engaged tenants while the majority of the wider tenant population were not involved, nor were they inclined to be.

The challenge for us as providers was primarily focused around increasing numbers of engaged tenants and diversifying our pool of engaged tenants. On the other hand, the barrier for tenants around engagement often included matters such as our offers not being relevant to them, requiring too much commitment and being nowhere near as inclusive as they ought to have been.

During the pandemic, the challenges around tenant engagement have changed. Providing a digital offer of engagement and tenants being comfortable it has been tough.

I’ll be honest, at the start of the pandemic I was slightly shocked to realise the degree of digital exclusion amongst people in our communities. This is despite having knowledge of how digital exclusion has impacted and continues to impact the tenants we support and the people around them. Access to suitable equipment; WiFi, a safe space at home to engage in Zoom meetings etc, is not a privilege everyone has.

My own lived experience coming from a Bangladeshi household has meant that often, wider family members have relied on me and other second-gen family members to access the internet. For the first time, we couldn’t just pop over to one another’s house to help each other and I feel that this new environment teamed with digital exclusion has led to a newfound isolation for many.

It seems to be that the digital offer has in some ways removed barriers and given us fresh and relevant opportunities to engage with different groups of tenants whilst simultaneously, cutting other people off from engagement completely. For me, this is all linked to equality and social justice and ultimately privilege and lack thereof. 

My ‘take-away’ from working in an engagement role during a world-wide pandemic has been that we as a sector are too reliant on a traditional model of tenant engagement, one which relies on us as an organisation putting things together for tenants to give us their views on. I don’t think this form of engagement is working for housing associations anymore but more importantly, I do not feel it is working for tenants either.

We have a unique opportunity to create a new and more relevant model of engagement based on large scale data insights. This is the information that we are getting from our tenants daily, but I must emphasise that for this type of model to work in practice, getting data capture ‘right’ is integral.

My ideas for this are still in their infancy and require a lot more work and research, which is why I’m looking forward to discussing this further at this year’s TAI 2021.

Written by Nazia Azad-Warren

Nazia Azad-Warren is tenant engagement manager at Cadwyn.