Springs and roundabouts

Social landlords can use IT to jump off the repairs merry-go-round. Paula Rohan reports on one leading scheme

Article first published
August 2000

Broomleigh Housing Association had a problem. With more than 14,000 homes and around 35,000 day-to-day repairs to manage every year, it struggled with a lengthy and arduous process. Its repairs department would take details over the phone, complete the relevant forms and contact the contractor to carry out the work. Often, defects would be inaccurately reported, workers would arrive ill equipped to do the job, and the 12-stage 'schedule of rates' merry-go-round would continue.

This will be a familiar story for any social landlord. The channel of communication between tenants, landlords, and the contractor, can easily turn into an administrative nightmare.

But Broomleigh Housing Association - one of London's largest registered social landlords - decided to take a fresh look at the issue. With private contractor Geoffrey Osborne, it began to pilot a streamlined repairs service. A key element was introducing a joint IT system designed to 'strip out as much bureaucracy and double handling as possible,' Broomleigh asset manager John Shortt says.

Broomleigh's old system operated around a complicated 'ring menu', with staff in-putting codes from a book that covered a range of repairs, but which were often not specific enough to cover the work needed. The system did not log any history of repairs, so they would have to start again from scratch every time a new repair was reported.

The new IT regime - known only as 'the system' - is Windows-based, operating on PCs. Staff input basic information like the caller's name and address into fields (rectangular boxes) on the screen, with larger fields for descriptions of repairs. This means that repairers have enough information to arrive properly equipped to do the job. 'Before, a caller might ring and say that their toilet needed repairing, when what they actually needed was a new toilet,' Osborne account manager Matthew Sturmer explains.

'The worker would have to come back and report all this, but now they can just go ahead and install it.'

Staff are also able to enter appointment times and specifics about client access, for example that they are disabled or will not be home at a certain time. Separate windows can be used to record details about costs, invoicing, repairs progress, and to make miscellaneous notes. Previous repairs are now logged so that call centre staff can inform the repairer if they are relevant, and all the information can be accessed from other Broomleigh and Osborne offices via an ISDN link.

Osborne can now be contacted directly by residents, deal with the repairs without reporting back to the association, and still provide the necessary administrative data, such as invoicing, without the unnecessary hassle.

The success of the project has been measured by three performance indicators: customer satisfaction; response times; and voids. Broomleigh says it has improved on all three criteria. Voids are turned around on average within 6.5 days; 95 per cent of repairs are done in the time promised; and 96 per cent of customers surveyed say that they are satisfied with the service.

The scheme is popular with staff because information is easy to input and accessible in seconds, and because there is no dispute over different sets of figures and information. 'It's a lot better,' call centre staff member Kate Roberts says. 'It's easier to use, to make notes on, and to train people on.'

The scheme has now been adopted by the Housing Corporation as a model for 'best value', and by the Housing Forum as a leading demonstration project.

'It eliminates waste from the process', the forum's project manager Marcus Keys says. 'The advantage is that there is a single point of contact, with no other link in the chain. Although the system was developed in-house, we would like to see it replicated by other landlords.'

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