Arguably not. Providers are under pressure to prove that they deserve their funding from the public purse and to respond to increasing regulatory focus on value for money. Understandably, uncertainty abounds. Despite this, I don’t think the situation merits the development of a best practice, academically-based methodology to quantify its social return.
This is a hugely difficult exercise and without clear benefits and stakeholder demand, it risks becoming a distraction. Providers need to understand what differentiates them from the private rented sector and how they deliver their social objectives. This will be different for each organisation with overlap on core housing provision activities.
I believe that what social housing providers could do to improve their impact reporting immediately is to realise that their current reporting focus is too heavy on the non-housing elements of their offering.
There has to be greater connectivity between the core benefits (being able to house people) and the non-housing benefits (the wider community programmes which work around that), both in terms of strategy and in terms of ability to measure in a common currency.
The problem here is that non-housing activity receives disproportionate attention in many organisations’ attempt to articulate their value-for-money stance, despite it representing so small a part of the overall portfolio.
Those non-housing activities, given such prominence, are rarely the main strategy for delivering the overall social objectives of the organisation. Social housing providers should look to how value comes through core activities.
These social benefits (both core and non-housing) need to be more clearly articulated in terms of KPIs around outcomes, not outputs, despite the fact that the latter is easier to articulate and communicate.
I think it is just too easy to say that a project achieved x, y and z. It is more important (and much harder) to articulate why that project was undertaken, how it linked to the core business, what long-term interventions it delivered and whether it delivered best value – yet that is where the sector needs to get to.
Currently, organisations appear to remain intent on reporting the social outputs of individual projects. The idea of taking a more holistic view of activity, more clearly connected to the overall mission, appears to remain rooted in the theoretical stage with many trying to make this process more complicated than it need be.
Yet that holistic view would facilitate more informed decision-making, both on the way in which core and non-housing activities should join up and on which non-housing programmes deserve to survive.
When looking for guidance from elsewhere, the charities sector is often mentioned as an example of best practice impact reporting. In my experience, charities are highly scientific in the way they try to establish the impact of every pound they receive. Donors, both current and future, can find reassurance in this intellectual rigour.
Whether such a scientific approach would work for social housing at its current level of reporting maturity is questionable. Personally, I think that, for now, the corporate sector’s CSR reporting provides a better blueprint for establishing the true value of social programmes because it takes a more holistic and narrative approach whilst still being supported by evidence.
Where the charity sector can inspire is in the way in which organisations work collaboratively to assess what good impact looks like and how to go about proving it. This can allow for very direct comparisons between one organisation and another; something which doesn’t faze charities in the way it appears to faze housing providers.
The former seem able to easily explain away the differences between each other while the latter often seem to actively focus on their differences rather than looking for areas of commonality. It’s as if housing associations have spent so long trying so hard to differentiate themselves from each other that their default position is to look for differences, not similarities.
Nevertheless, I do believe that a greater degree of collaboration between housing organisations would go a long way towards establishing a pragmatic form of impact reporting.
I think the other area in which the sector can help itself is in looking beyond its usual talent pool when recruiting to find the people who can help them tackle impact. This will likely mean looking to the wider public sector as well as the not-for-profit sector. In the absence of concrete guidance on what to report on, or how, the sector is being left to figure this out for itself. Individual organisations need serious reporting experience and a knowledge of the core business (or at least a willingness to learn) all rolled up into the same person.
The sector needs to do this quickly though. Without properly demonstrating value for money by linking core and non-housing outcomes to each other and to the organisation’s overall mission, housing associations will struggle to make regulatory reporting around value for money a worthwhile business activity. It will remain a tag on distraction, seen as just another tick box exercise. They then risk missing out on a great opportunity to inform their own day-to-day and board decisions and for the sector to influence government decisions in the wider fight for resources.
Such an outcome is not in anyone’s best interests. The first step towards successful impact reporting may seem like a difficult one, but the sector will only learn what is effective by doing it and having the confidence to face some external challenge. Publishing something and working towards a solution has to be better than just twiddling thumbs.
Julia Rank is a Senior Manager in KPMG's Charities and Donors practice