It was in Autumn 2020 that Lichfield District Council began seeking an alternative housing register and choice-based lettings platform, when it was decided that their existing agreement would come to an end in July 2021. Up to this point, Lichfield had enjoyed a long history of working in partnership with Bromford Housing Association, who managed and administered the housing register on their behalf through the Homes Direct platform.
Seeking a new platform
Housing Options Project Officer at Lichfield District Council, Beverley Dickinson-Gardner was at the forefront of the decision-making process to select and implement a new platform. In her words:
“The changes within the Homes Direct Partnership and Bromford gave us the opportunity to review the operation of the housing register moving forward. We felt we would be meeting our priority of enhancing customer experience more effectively if the management of the housing register resided with one single organisation. Consequently, we took over the management of the housing register in its entirety.”
It was established therefore, that Lichfield District Council would continue with a choice-based lettings scheme and that they would need to procure their own system.
“In September 2020 it was confirmed Homes Direct would cease to operate on 31st March 2021. This unanticipated change gave us the opportunity to look at the system requirements and focus on our two priorities; to enhance customer experience and minimise the resources required to administer the system.”
The objectives of the system were concluded to be:
- Be intuitive and customer-led
- Simple to use and easy to configure
- Maximise automation
- Support both homelessness and allocations, and transfer data easily between the two
- Ability to set pre-qualification questions to deter ineligible applicants from making an application
- Ability for computer-led decision making with back-office authorisation
- Easy to produce reports
- Ability to monitor applicants and nominations
- Make the best use of the available resources
- Easy advertising and shortlisting/nominating to reduce void times
“With the identified objectives, and the extremely tight time scale we found ourselves in, we knew we needed to work with a trusted supplier who had a proven record of working to strict time scales, the highest level of customer support and service, a commitment to ongoing improvement and one that was responsive to customer feedback and enhancement requests. Therefore, the natural choice was Housing Jigsaw.
“In addition, we already used the MRI Housing Jigsaw Homelessness Reduction and Alert modules and therefore, the synergies were really advantageous to us.”
“When we found out Homes Direct was closing 4 months earlier than expected, we were in a real bind. By November 2020, the new allocations policy, approval to bring the housing register back in-house and approval to procure a housing register & choice-based lettings system had yet to be gained from cabinet.
“We were also aware that MRI would require 14 working days to write up the contract, that the Allocations and Housing Register configuration and implementation takes 16 weeks and also that MRI were extremely busy with other implementations and configurations. Yet it was essential we had the new systems configured and implemented to go live on 18th March 2021 – and we still had Christmas to contend with!”
Working with MRI Software
“Our Account Manager at MRI was invaluable; he could not do enough to support us. He provided the contract in 8 working days – 6 working days under the 14 days it usually takes. He also liaised with both our procurement and legal teams. Due to his efforts, which went above and beyond, we signed the contract with MRI on 1st December 2020.
“Our Implementation Project Manager and Solutions Consultant at MRI were equally invaluable. From rearranging their diaries, providing expert advice and knowledge, to ensuring our ‘go live’ date was achievable by working with us to condense the implementation plan, they have worked tirelessly.”
Successful configuration and implementation can only occur with open channels of communication between our teams and our clients. In order to ensure that we are fulfilling our clients’ expectations, we use documentation collaboration tools, as well as holding regular configuration meetings.
For Beverley, “The document collaboration tool was easy to update and upload documents to, facilitating fast communication between ourselves and MRI. The quality of the configuration document is second to none; the best I have had the pleasure of working with in my thirty-one year career. It covers all aspects of the configuration, including things we hadn’t initially considered.
“The configuration meeting was imperative. Our Implementation Project Manager and Solutions Consultant were incredibly knowledgeable and excelled at explaining – in great detail – how to utilise this document to its best advantage. Their guidance and support enabled us to return the document a week early. In turn, this enabled MRI to build a test site through which we could complete User Acceptance Testing. It ultimately proved to need the minimum of amendments due to the guidance given to us.”
Included within the purchase of any Housing Jigsaw solution are hands-on training sessions to equip our clients’ teams with the knowledge to hit the ground running in the use of the platform.
For Beverley, “The training provided has been outstanding, empowering both staff with and without previous knowledge of the Housing Jigsaw suite to be effective members of the User Acceptance Testing.
“To ensure we met our ‘go live’ date we condensed the time taken for User Acceptance Testing. To facilitate this, the MRI team planned regular catch-up meetings, during which they ensured that I was happy with the progress and answered all questions I had.”
MRI solutions are built around the needs of our clients, with the Housing Jigsaw suite created in close collaboration with the sector. The platforms are in a constant state of development, moving with the changing requirements of those using them. In the last year alone, 25 software releases have been deployed based on customer feedback at no extra cost to our customers. Beverley describes this process in action:
“During the User Acceptance Testing, we identified some enhancements that we felt would benefit not only our own organisation, but any organisation that uses the systems. When advising MRI of these, they were immediately passed to the development team for consideration. MRI really do listen to their customers and value their feedback.”
Within the previous Homes Direct solution, applicants were able to self-verify. This would often mean placing themselves in a priority band higher than the scheme allowed, which would only be discovered at the point of offer. This regularly led to a delay in offers of accommodation being made with increased void times, as well as customer complaints when expectations were not met.
Speaking of the Housing Jigsaw Allocations and Housing Register modules, Beverley explains:
“For us it is a vast improvement, ensuring non-qualifying or ineligible applicants cannot access the register. Applicants are not self-verifying their banding and changing their answers to award themselves a higher priority, thus managing customer expectations.”
“Generally speaking, the Housing Register module will greatly improve on our customer experience. Having the module’s application form specifically configured to our allocations policy means the form is far less onerous for our applicants. The customer portal within the module empowers our customers to upload documents, sign their declaration form and advise of changes in circumstance.
“The Allocations module is comparable to visiting a site like Rightmove, providing professional-looking adverts and detailed information about the area, such as transport links, schooling and local amenities. Visually, both modules are far more appealing and professional than our previous platform.”
From the team’s perspective, “The systems are helping us to manage officer workloads and time by auto-generating the required documents, closing incomplete applications and generating batch letters. The Allocations module is so easy to use that our approved providers will be adding their own adverts, once again reducing officer time.
“Due to the volume of labels available to add to a property, we will be able to make much better use of the limited stock available. In addition, with the detailed information about the area on the adverts themselves we are sure we will see a decrease in customer refusals, therefore reducing void times.”
Limited reporting functionality in the previously used Homes Direct platform meant that the system could not provide quality housing demand data.
In contrast, “The reporting functionality in the Housing Jigsaw Allocations and Housing Register modules will enable us to provide applicants with realistic information, such as the average waiting time for a property type, bedroom requirement or specific area. It will facilitate us having a real understanding of our customers’ needs, wants and reasoning for accessing the housing register. We can use the quality housing demand data provided to influence future housing development and identify gaps in support or services to provide tailored provision.”
A lasting impression
Beverley goes on to say, “In short, working with MRI we have found a high-quality product – realistically and competitively priced – and dedicated and extremely knowledgeable staff who provide the highest level of customer service and support.
“MRI is a company that actively seeks suggested improvements and customer feedback and is extremely responsive to these; they strive to continually enhance and upgrade their product. They are a company that truly puts their customer first.”
For Greg Andrews, Client Experience Manager at MRI Software, “It’s been a pleasure working with Bev and the team at Lichfield, who went live on the 17th March and are already seeing the benefits and efficiencies the system can offer. I look forward to continuing to work with the team in the future”.