Finding Your Silence: Engaging the Tenant Voices We Hear the Least

Wednesday 29th of May 2024

By Danny Sherwood - Co-Create

“Finding your silence” describes the process of actively seeking out the tenant voices we hear the least. Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman, describes finding your silence as a key test of damp and mould policies. It could just as well apply to all tenant involvement. Involving tenants whose voices are seldom-heard brings greater benefits than those who are frequently heard, for both housing providers and tenants. So how can we engage those people we hear from the least? 

For the past eight years, Co-create have been supporting public services to involve the people they serve, with a focus on including the most marginalised. The following is an outline of how best practice in tenant involvement could look, based on that experience. 

Recruitment for tenant involvement prioritises diversity

In the context of limited resources, it often makes sense to target resources to those whose voices are least often heard. We have the most to learn from people we’ve engaged with least in the past, and building trust with these tenants benefits the service more broadly.

As including some always means excluding others, it’s helpful to be transparent about your decision-making. Some rationales for focusing on particular tenants include:

•    You’ve not engaged with this group of tenants very much in the past
•    They have specific needs that are likely to get lost in the majority without targeted engagement
•    They have the greatest challenges regarding the issue at hand

Co-create have found that when people are invited to collaborate on something that is meaningful to them (as opposed to more generic (“public voice” role), they are more likely to take part. By focusing involvement on specific topics and inviting people with direct experience of that topic to be involved, we’re able to engage with people who haven’t previously been involved.


We’ve also found it important to be deliberate about who we want to invite to collaborate. Self-selecting groups or panels don’t commonly bring a diverse range of views (you might recognise some demographics that you hear from more than others). It can help to approach recruitment as you would with a professional role, being clear about what specific experience you need for this particular project.

Involvement opportunities are accessible to tenants with diverse needs

Different people need to engage in different ways. When COVID lockdowns pushed many of us online, there was a lot of discussion around digital exclusion (rightly so). But it also turned out that some people function much better online. People who, for example, have anxiety leaving the house or struggle with sensory overload found they could take part for the first time. No one method includes everyone, so accessible involvement must include multiple methods. 

There are common barriers that we need to make sure we address (such as physical accessibility of opportunities, timing and location, and language barriers). But we can never guess everyone’s needs. Asking people about their needs builds trust. We’ve found it feels better to provide an offer such as “what can we do to help you take part more fully?” rather than focus on deficits (as in “do you have any access needs?”).  

We also need to think about financial recognition for taking part. The minimum standard is covering expenses - what costs might people incur in taking part that would exclude or be unfair to people with particular circumstances? We also need to think about offering money for people’s time. Co-create have found that giving people money (or vouchers) for taking part increases diversity by allowing people with financial restrictions to take part. It particularly supports those whose trust we don’t have yet, who are often those we hear from the least. Where this is not possible, it’s worth working with tenants to understand what else would help them feel that their time is valued. 

Methods are creative and tailored to the people we want to engage

Having access to involvement opportunities is one thing, wanting to take part is another. As discussed earlier, a topic that is meaningful is a great start. But if that involves going to a series of long, formal meetings then many people will still not take part. Employees also benefit from engagement being creative and enjoyable. 

Surveys and focus groups have their place. But it’s easy to lose the spark as you repeat the same models, often with the same people. We’ve found that when we work with organisations on innovative engagement methods, it brings a lot of energy to the work. For example, the following ideas engage people in different ways:

•    Host creative sessions using approaches like creative writing or drama
•    Provide materials for people to feedback to you in their own time, for example with disposable camera, or by keeping a journal
•    Train some tenants to interview others with a similar experience

Choose your methods based on the people you’d like to be there, and the topic you’re focusing on. We’ve found that this approach increases the quality of engagement and motivates the people involved to come back for more. 

We regularly reflect on and improve our engagement

Registered providers are now required to work with tenants to “regularly consider ways to improve and tailor their approach to delivering landlord services including tenant engagement.”  How can we do this in practice?

At Co-create, we build reflection space into our plans. This can be for single sessions or whole projects, and include tenants and employees. The simplest model is to ask two questions:

1)    What went well?
2)    What could have been better?

When we’re evaluating engagement, we look not only at what we’ve learned about the topic of the engagement but what we’ve learned about our process. Tenant engagement will always involve trying things out, reviewing, improving. At Co-create we’ve learned to design evaluations that give space for people to tell us what outcomes are important to them (rather than evaluating the process against pre-defined outcomes). It’s often the things we hadn’t anticipated that are the most interesting, and giving people this opportunity helps to build relationships. 

Tenant engagement is always a process of discovery - finding out what works for you and the people you support. The new regulatory standards add another requirement, so let’s treat this as an opportunity to make tenant engagement enjoyable for all involved, and leading to real change.

Find out more about Co-create on their website.