The pace of change

(originally published by "Inside Housing")

Once housing officers were drowning under piles of papers. Now all the information they need is on the PC. Bob Livermore reflects on how times have changed

The pace of change in IT is relentless. Now computers are a basic requirement of our work in housing. But when I started my career in local government things were very different. My first experience of information technology at the London Borough of Haringey was Lola (Local authority On Line Accounting). With this computer, used by a number of local authorities in London, you walked into the heart of the machine and, by using punch cards, were able to produce accurate details of tenants' rent accounts. My lasting memory is that we had to walk through an entrance into the computer and onto a static mat to prevent static electricity from crashing the machine. What a difference modern computers make.

My next job was in Ipswich, where I was a housing assistant. It was here that we realised our manual systems were not only time consuming but took our attention away from the management of our properties. A day a week was spent balancing books and writing out standard letters to tenants. For repairs, orders had to be hand-written, recorded, collated and sent to the works department, which returned them once the work had been carried out. And we had to write rent cards out by hand on an overtime basis. It became apparent that we were losing the battle and that the paper was overwhelming the resources we had at our disposal. Eventually a repairs system and a rent accounting system were introduced to make our life easier. Initially it was a culture shock. The system often broke down. When you had time available the system did not wish to play with you.

Finally the council declared UDI on the corporate computing facility and purchased its own standalone system. This was a particularly bold move at the time and there was plenty of 'political' infighting. Our IT manager said to me: 'This is like the tail wagging the dog.' My reply to him was: 'It depends which dog you are on.' In other words as part of the corporate body the facility needed to provide the level of support required by service departments.

The system was written specifically for the housing department. It suited our methods of working and whilst there was some frustration when the system was not working effectively, our destiny was in our own hands. I was sent on a computer programming course. Within a week I had mastered the computer language and was able to retrieve routine reports giving management information that we had never received before. On one occasion I found my way into a part of the system which had a high security control. My manager told me that I was not to enter this part of the system as the information contained within it was sensitive. I noticed the next day that all the passwords had been changed. To prove a point I wrote a programme pulling out all the passwords and all the programmes associated with them. I showed this to my manager and he then had to trust that I would be working for the organisation rather than against it. The programme I wrote was called Mole!

Here at North East Lincolnshire, we have purchased the Anite Housing System which allows us to control rent arrears and to have a precision accounting arrangement. Repairs are ordered and budgets are controlled through the repairs suite of the system which integrates with the rent system when improvements are carried out to tenants' homes. Programmed maintenance and repairs and the allocations and housing register are managed using the system.

We are implementing the housing at work part of the system which enables workflow to be adequately monitored. It allows correspondence to be scanned in and allocated to individual officers. We will be able to manage more effectively the work that comes into the department and ensure that officers are not burdened with too much work. Where capacity exists we will be able to identify it. The document imaging system will be particularly helpful to us, as the department works over a number of sites and passage of management information is not always easy.

So what is the future for IT? I do not see the pace of change slowing. Voice recognition will enable me to talk to my computer and get results. The manual programming of computers to provide management information will be by voice recognition dialogue and the PC on my desk will become my best friend. Filing will be carried out via document imaging systems with staff having access to all the information they need to make timely and accurate decisions. Systems will enable us to plan work and provide a really proactive service for our customers. Much of our information will be available to tenants through their television sets and PCs.

With interactive television comes the opportunity for customers to have more say and more choice about their housing - something we would all wish to provide. I remember the days when I used to watch programmes like Lost in Space and Star Trek. Now those visions are coming closer to the reality of our working life. Beam me up Scottie.

Bob Livermore is director of housing at North East Lincolnshire Council and chair of the Yorkshire and Humberside Branch of the Chartered Institute of Housing. The views expressed are his own. Special web services...