How evidence-based research can open the door to new markets for UK Housing
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Following this week’s launch of the Standards of evidence in housing by HACT, Bromford’s strategic research manager, Carole Clark, reflects on the sector’s relationship with research; why it needs to improve and what her advice is to those organisations looking to embark on a more evidence-based approach.
The housing sector has traditionally struggled to evidence the impact of its work. Yes, we present lovely case stories that describe an individual’s journey, but rarely do we present a body of evidence that could robustly inform policy, investment, Government decisions or encourage collaborative work outside of the sector.
Maybe it’s because we’ve never needed to evidence what we do. Or maybe it’s because culturally we’re very good at the doing. We put our energy and money into delivering genuinely life-changing frontline services, considering an investment in research an unnecessary luxury. Whatever the reason, those times have gone. The sector as a whole is under pressure to demonstrate the value of its work and as we look to collaborate outside of housing, we need the hard facts to back up the stories of transformation.
In my opinion there are two real issues the sector needs to overcome. Firstly there’s our bias towards correlation rather than causation. Many organisations, including Bromford in the past, have made the leap that because we’ve put an intervention place and a positive change has occurred that it must have worked, but that’s not necessarily the case. Take an employment hub where everyone who attends gets a job. In the past we would have whooped with joy and given ourselves a big pat on the back, but who’s to say it was the intervention that made the difference and not the fact that the economy has picked up and they would have got a job anyway? This is one of the reasons why control groups are so vitally important.
Secondly our reliance on case stories is a real issue. Don’t get me wrong these are part of the mix and do feature in HACT’s standards of evidence toolkit. They tell the story that an intervention has worked for an individual, but they offer no insight into whether this could be scaled up to 20,000 customers and still work – this is why you also need the data.
The fact is we need to become more rigorous in how we evaluate the impact of our services so that we can say with a lot more confidence that things work, particularly as we look to collaborate outside of the sector. The NHS are much better at this stuff and I suppose they have to be when people’s lives are at stake, but if we look to collaborate in this market our case stories simply won’t cut it.
It was the introduction of the Social Value Act that really brought all of this to Bromford’s attention. We quickly realised the benefit of taking a more rigorous approach to evaluating the impact of our work. Not only did it focus the mind in terms of service development, but it also contributed to our thinking on efficiencies – where we only invest in things that evidentially cause the outcome we require. Take our Winter Buddies programme for example. This programme aimed to improve the wellbeing of our older customers through reducing isolation in the winter months. Customers loved it, colleagues loved it and the NHS thought it was great – so in the past this would have been a big green tick for rolling it out. But it wasn’t great; our evaluation told us that when we walked away after this intervention it left some customers feeling worse and more isolated than ever. Think of the financial and social savings this research provided – it was well worth the investment.
And investment in research is often one of the biggest barriers for housing organisations, particularly if you’re a smaller provider. Research is time-consuming and leaders can often feel that they’re paying over the odds to have colleagues read reports, collate data and evaluate impact, but there is a real ROI in this and you only have to look at the private sector to see what value they put on it. Last year, for instance, Apple – who is already ahead of the game - invested over $1.9b in research, that’s 3.3% of the company’s net sales. Now of course I’m not advocating investing at that level, but it does give an indication of where these businesses place research in their list of spending priorities. At Bromford the cost of research and innovation sits around the 1% of profits mark and my question would be – why wouldn’t you invest 1% of your profits to ensure that every £1 you invested in frontline services unquestionably had the desired outcome?
I do appreciate that it’s always going to be difficult for smaller housing organisations to invest in a research team, but there are options out there. The HACT toolkit is a great starting place as it provides a hierarchy of evidence you can work through to develop as you go. There are also loads of peer networks that I find really valuable and I’d be happy to put you in touch with these. Finally, if the money is there, but the skills aren’t - local universities are always interested in partnering up with organisations to undertake research projects.
I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice to say that the time has come for the housing sector to properly evidence the impact of its work, not only to survive but also to drive real efficiencies and business growth. This is easier for larger organisations like Bromford, but it is also possible for smaller RSLs – my advice to all would be to simply just start somewhere.