Blog: Modernising Scrutiny with Emma Gilpin

Friday 14th of August 2020

Moving from a traditional approach to embedding Scrutiny across the organisation

When Scrutiny first came about, and brought a new word into all our vocabulary, there was very much a fixed approach to how it should be set up. It consisted of a standing group of heavily involved customers - we learned how to ‘scope’ together, another new one for us, (in English ‘pick a topic and look into it’)! As time went on, we honed the approach and some fantastic work took place - real changes were made on the advice of tenants, who voluntarily spent many hours poring through policies and procedures, checking facts and key performance indicators, interviewing staff, managers and other customers, and forming their conclusions.

Let’s face it, it’s not an easy task and, certainly in many people’s books, not the most exciting. But do it they did - with some amazing results.

As always though, nothing stays the same - time went on, and regulation became much more ‘hands off’ - scrutiny started to slip off the agenda for some organisations. For those who were still committed it became ever more challenging as tenants grew older, time became even more precious, and the drive was increasingly to use customer insight and data to drive performance improvement.

Then Grenfell happened…

Suddenly there was a national consciousness of what could happen when organisations didn’t listen effectively to their tenants and where proper scrutiny of their work wasn’t taking place. So there was new momentum to make sure scrutiny really made a difference and wasn’t just a box ticking exercise to keep the regulator at bay.

It was at this time that I started working with Pickering and Ferens Homes, who were in good shape, thanks to previous support from Tpas.

However, with an older customer base they were very much in the traditional approach. A standing group of customers met monthly, with an understanding that it would take a year to complete a topic, with limited scope for additional work between meetings. We embarked on a new topic, which went well. We looked into how customer complaints were managed, got suitably buried in best practice, guidance (including the long-standing Green paper), interviewed managers, other customers, and spoke to other organisations who were trailblazing effective complaints approaches.

So within the year the recommendations were made, and well received by the organisation. But managers recognised that there were improvements that could still be made:

  • The group was ageing and therefore not everyone was able to attend every meeting
  • The pace was slow, one topic a year meant other opportunities to scrutinise were missed
  • The group required a very high level of support – very much reliant on managers and Tpas to provide the information and organise and chair the meetings

There was a real appetite for change and improvement but we recognised it was vital to look at and implement any changes with customers not done to them.

Working with Katie Burton, Resident Services Manager at PFH, who had provided such great support to the group and myself, and has a real commitment to customer engagement, we organised a review session. This was to focus on what was working well for the group and what could be better, and to propose some options, taking on board the work that other organisations were doing.

“When Emma and I took the opportunity to review PFH’s scrutiny methods earlier this year, we wanted to know if we could be more efficient and achieve more meaningful outcomes. We really wanted to challenge the way we always have done things, but with our customer demographic being over 60, the use of IT routinely presents challenges to many.

Feedback from the Panel and the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic further brought this to the fore when it became apparent that face to face (or voice to voice) contact is still very important to them, and for many, the only way they can communicate.  At the same time, we want to embrace new ways to communicate digitally; we don’t want there to be barriers to being involved and we want to make sure residents can be communicated with in the way they want to be.”

The Review Session covered:

  • A summary of what was working well – the group had completed 6 successful topics with all recommendations accepted by the Board
  • Challenges - such as being able to show value for money, recruiting and retaining volunteers, staff time to support the group, channel shift with availability of wide range of digital tools and the increased call to evidence impacts and outcomes from all forms of engagement.
  • Review of the approaches taken by other organisations - including information from the Tpas National Tenant Engagement Survey
  • Scrutiny of the current approach – the group looked how they were working and ways they could continue to improve
  • A summary of the Task and Finish approach, which felt like it could be a good option for the future. Pros being; keeping it simple, ensuring every project was time-limited with a defined start and end, existing members being complimented by new members with interest and recent experience in the topic, focused activity with specific outcomes, alternative methods of feedback to engage the wider resident population, and recording contributions.

The new way

The group agreed the Task and Finish approach was the way to go; ensuring that scrutiny would become embedded across Pickering and Ferens, enabling ownership by staff throughout the organisation and allowing for the completion of a range of scrutiny topics with engagement from a wide demographic of customers.

Katie adds: “We are keen to build scrutiny into the organisational culture and in addition, have residents involved who have a genuine interest, and perhaps expertise, in the subject matter. We are going to trial the ‘task and finish’ model, where managers across the organisation will be expected to lead on scrutiny activities within their service areas. 

To support this, I have developed a toolkit which managers will be responsible for working to when reviewing a service or a performance issue.  I will shortly be providing training and hope to trial the toolkit very soon. Only time will tell if it works or not.  But we’re not afraid to give new things a go; sometimes you need to understand what doesn’t work before you know what does!”

Of course, with Covid-19 hitting hard, progress has been slower than we would have liked.

Perhaps though this decision couldn’t have come at a better time, when the whole world is looking to operate in a totally different way, and we are all having to come up with new creative solutions to make a difference in an every-changing landscape. It’s great to see an organisation excited to try something new and, most importantly that the will to implement this new approach continues, so watch this space for how it goes!