New approach to online services reaps big rewards for major UK housing body

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood May 24, 2019
Thames Valley Housing Association says that a re-think of its online offering has turned user interest in a previously underused system completely around

Image of a family on the sofa using a laptop

There’s digital, and there’s digital. Case in point - five years ago, Thames Valley Housing Association (TVHA) had a perfectly fine website where its 15,000 tenants and renters could initiate online card payments themselves.

The problem: a mere 1% of them were doing so - which meant more calls going into its contact centre. And given that the Association’s users are primarily people on variable incomes, with poor visibility of when they will next have money, or who don’t want to commit to a hard payment plan like a direct debit or standing order in case they incur bank charges that will cause them even more financial problems than they already have, that was also not great for tenants, says the Association’s Head of Digital, Mat Cohen.

The older system’s functionality was also, let’s be honest, not that great. Users had to use one set of credentials to log in, but then had to type in a completely different set of ID details to pay their bills, for example, while error messages were vague and meant users couldn’t sort issues for themselves, Cohen admits.

So, a digital system yes, but not one that really helped. Cohen said: 

We were asking people who are pretty digitally-savvy and who use lots of great banking or utility tools to work with something way below that standard. No wonder we had only 15% people registered on it and 7% ‘return rate’ for online payments, as in people coming back and using it more than once after registration, which is really very low.

But now, he really is offering a digital service - by the simple metric that that 1% has turned into 72%. Step forward Thames Valley’s totally revamped digital offering, which is enabling users to pay their rent, log and track repairs, and register and pay for parking permits and many other convenient services.

This new offering - MyTVH - is now so successful it took £7m worth of payments in 2018 and is the payment channel of choice for residents on Universal Credit, states Cohen. That number is only part of a constellation of other impressive ones, as it happens: since the redesign started, a total of £42.7m payments and over 145,000 transactions have happened online, that 15% number has gone up to just over 50% of all TVHA residents, and the payment success rate has gone up from 7 to more like 75%. Finally, over 6,500 repair requests have been submitted online, while moving from its previous High St banking partner to Stripe also saved the Association money.

And by making online such a strong channel, it’s not just tenants getting benefits: they are accruing to the Association itself, Cohen says, telling diginomica/government,

We have reduced the number of calls users need to make into the contact centre by 1,000 a month, we think, which is the equivalent of 50 hours of staff time a month, so obviously time they can now spend on other activities for tenants, like more complicated queries and supporting vulnerable residents.

I also estimate that by using cloud as we are, we have been able to scale the service without needing to buy more transactional infrastructure to what would have cost us at least £6,000 a month with the older approach, which is also very welcome in terms of our resource allocation.

‘Developing our own digital capability’

How did Thames Valley turn this situation around so convincingly? Cohen says that it’s all part of his small but growing internal digital team using tools to build sustainable, scalable applications that they can easily modify or expand in line with changing business circumstances or user demand.

Cloud is at the heart of all this, for sure, with the Association having decided to standardise on Amazon Web Services some time ago - but Cohen also insists that he’s had a lot of help re-thinking TVHA’s entire approach to online services from his project partner on MyTVH. That’s dxw, a UK digital agency focused on helping public sector organisations develop their strategies and grow their own in-house digital capability, who Cohen says:

Our partner has been very good in suggesting new approaches, and I really like the way that they are so closely aligned in this with the GDS Service Manual, which we really approve of as a way of designing systems. So they are not just going to put a feature on the website for you, they want to ask why you are doing it and how it will help the end user.

I also like the way they want to help us build our own knowledge base here at TVHA, which suits our philosophy of growing at the pace we want and always having control of our own IT. We are also a Ruby on Rails shop, so that was another good thing to have in common. 

Cohen’s favourite example of how a new way of thinking about online delivered great results: payments.

Our older system for this was too inflexible, and if you’re on Universal Credit or your income fluctuates with work just offering recurring payment options like a direct debit just won’t work for you.

But once we moved to a flexible card payment service which allows you to make payments when you can afford it, in a safe way, a lot of users have taken that up.

Which results, of course, in more stable outgoings for his customers, but also more dependable income streams for the Association - which will come in handy, says Cohen, given that Thames is now part of a much bigger entity following its September 2018 merger with Metropolitan, resulting in a much bigger combined body, Metropolitan Thames Valley, which together has more like 57,000 homes spread across London, the South East, East Midlands and East of England.

Great digital will be key to making the new higher level of services we need to offer as a combined organisation to residents much easier to deliver.