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In our lives, it seems we are inundated with a deluge of data. In housing, we have been conscious for some time now of Big Data sets, with software providers enabling landlords to hold millions of lines of data about the residents living in their properties. The level of detail which housing providers can extract from the information which is available at their fingertips and the power from using emerging meta-data trends, can deliver valuable insight.

I recall Nicholas Paget-Brown, the then leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, being interviewed on Newsnight post-Grenfell, not having the up to date asset data to hand on properties they were responsible for having sprinklers, for example. He also didn’t seem certain how many tower blocks they managed had the same flammable ACM cladding as was installed at Grenfell. That simply is not acceptable, certainly in terms of the risk to human life, but also in terms of asset management and compliance, which should feed into building safety programmes.

Layers of detail can be extracted from software to empower housing providers, for example, to help asset managers and compliance officers to assess how many sprinklers they have in their high rises and how often they’ve been activated, how many fire doors they have and do they meet fire safety standards and which type of cladding has been installed on which high rises.

At the Homes exhibition, Ian Gregg, Executive Director of Asset Services for Riverside, talked about the impact of Grenfell on procurement. He said:

 “We need to use the data, so we know the contents of our buildings and not rely on stock condition surveys.”

Mark Everard, Executive Director of Property at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing Group, added:

“As a sector, we need better information about our properties in terms of materials. This has to be digitally held. We have to build a library of what we know about our properties.”

This level of detail is available to us, via technology; the data can deliver precision and accuracy in a sector which needs it. It is possible to store serial numbers for individual sprinklers, as well as hold the data on specific fire doors and the specification of cladding, down to the levels of repairs and maintenance stock left over in vans, as well as remaining in warehouses.

Using software systems, data is easier to collect than ever before and yet seemingly, finding the true cost of repairs via job costing has fallen out of favour. Job costing is the process of tracking the expenses incurred on a job which can be tracked against the original budget or an estimate for that job. Direct and indirect costs can be assigned to each open job; direct costs include the materials used, transportation costs, any rental equipment required and the associated staff costs for carrying out the work. Indirect costs can be applied across jobs to give a complete job cost profile.

Actual costs such as payroll, administration and purchases can also be fed into the costing system to reflect actual, real costs and refine the level of charges. The main advantage of tracking this data is that it allows organisations to build up an accurate cost of works undertaken and improves the estimation for future similar jobs. It also gives a wealth of job management information. With providers searching for average costs per property for repairs and the trend for outsourcing, the need to capture the detail in a post-Grenfell climate should be as important as ever, in order to provide a robust accountable service.

The key element in understanding the price for delivering the service is to understand the true costs of repairs. With many repairs and maintenance functions managed in-house, the emphasis for housing providers now seems to be on job satisfaction with residents and customer service, rather than cost per job. Completing jobs Right First Time, meeting appointments and due dates are seemingly taking a priority over monitoring performance, so it hasn’t mattered if schedules and the detail about the job is not always recorded in full. The drive to cut costs has been replaced with this emphasis on customer service.

To understand the true cost of repairs, why then do some social landlords not use job costing?

The concept of job invoicing is not that important perhaps, if your repairs and maintenance is carried out in-house, if you are all part of the same organisation. It’s just a formality and possibly, if your income doesn’t depend on it, there is not the incentive to record further details of the job, without bonus incentives. The priority is for the work to be completed on time and the appointment to be kept. How though can housing associations make savings without data on what they have spent and are spending, when and where? How can they accurately recharge residents without accurate and free from scrutiny ‘real’ costs or prices for resident responsible repairs, such as recharging for a front door lock perhaps if a resident has lost their key? Surely you could estimate how long it would take you to turn voids around if you knew more about what was in it and what changes you’d been making, if you’d captured the data from every time you entered that property during the tenancy.

Surely contract management is still needed to properly record the work done using schedules of rates and to chase teams to record all this data quickly and accurately. Housing providers still need the level of detail this data provides, not just to assess profit levels, but to know what work was carried out when. Also, the initial description of a repair recorded by a tenant, via self-serve systems perhaps, is not always accurate. We need precise job costing and contract management, we need this level of detail and politically, post-Grenfell, it’s now unacceptable not to have the data, especially when something goes wrong. Compliance work should be accurately monitored; a full service history including annual inspection dates should be kept on a gas boiler, for example, to mitigate against the threat of a gas explosion or the numbers of active emergency lights in a supported housing block should be checked at regular intervals, to prevent the risk of falls or injury. Standards of accurate recording should be applied across the board.

As a housing provider, if you don’t care about job costing you should care about the detail; who went where, when and why, what they did, what they installed, what’s the serial number of what they installed. Why, because social housing matters, what we ‘do’ to the properties matters and in this new era we find ourselves in, in terms of a focus and spotlight on social housing, it simply isn’t good enough not to know. 

Posted Wednesday, February 20th, 2019 by Nicola Brown

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