"Report-a-Repair" is part of London and Quadrant's website (www.residentsonline.org.uk) and it enables tenants to report a fault over the internet, rather than on the phone. This is faster for the tenant and has the potential to save the housing association a fortune by streamlining the repair process. This in turn would have knock-on benefits for general maintenance and help the association provide a better service to its tenants for less money.
Of course, the switch to an electronic system is not that simple. For a start, most of London and Quadrant's tenants do not use a computer, let alone own one. The housing association is attempting to overcome this with an in-house training scheme but a more important problem is that, for the system to bring the hoped-for benefits, the management of repairs will have to be overhauled.
At the moment, tenants call a freephone number to report a fault. They describe the fault to the call centre worker who inputs the information into the system. Once verified for action, an order is generated and faxed to the relevant contractor. The tenant then receives written confirmation that their fault is being dealt with. Kevin Taplin, maintenance policy adviser to London and Quadrant, says this system is clogged up with phone calls.
Online requests are received as a printed email and then handled in the same way. But in future, it is anticipated that the whole process will be electronic. The Report-a-repair system will automatically verify where responsibility lies for some types of repair and pass this information straight to the relevant contractor.
London and Quadrant needs to make these improvements because, over the next five years, its maintenance budgets are not being increased by the rate of inflation – a 20% cut in real terms. This cut has to be made without any reduction in quality. "Improving efficiency is the only way to do it," says Taplin.
Taplin has not done any formal analysis of the service's cost benefits but is able to give an indication of where savings could be made. London and Quadrant would save on the provision of a freephone number and on communication costs between the call centre and the contractor. Call centre costs would also be reduced and there would be no need for confirmation letters as tenants would be able to check the progress of their repair online.
To complete the switch to an online system, the contractors need to be on board. So the housing association is working hard to improve relations with its maintenance firms through initiatives such as partnering and schemes where contractors are awarded for good service. These will be bolstered by training.
London and Quadrant must also ensure that more residents can use the system. With this in mind, a grant from the Adult and Community Learning Fund has been used to provide tenants with basic computer training. Flexible course times and the provision of free childcare and travel come as part of the package to enable all to attend. To date, there have been 18 courses and more than 100 people trained, with a waiting list of 290 people.
Chloe Douglas and Juliet Greenidge are two tenants who have attended the training scheme. They are full of praise for Report-a-Repair. "You can be kept waiting on the phone for 20 minutes sometimes if it's busy," says Douglas. "You get an announcement saying you are in a queue, then some music. I hate that music, it's one of the worst things about reporting a fault." Both women claim that repairs are fixed much faster if reported online. This could be a result of the priority system that means more urgent repairs are dealt with more quickly, or attributed to the fact that the email from Report-a-Repair goes straight to the team leader in the call centre, speeding up the process. But even if faster service is an illusion, the housing association is confident that the online system is more efficient.
To boost take-up, London and Quadrant has given recycled computers to most of its residents' associations and free vouchers for internet cafes. It has also donated computers to some of its sheltered housing schemes and has found that the "silver surfers" have been among the most enthusiastic learners.
Although only 1-2% of tenants are currently reporting a repair online, Taplin hopes that 20% will use it within two to three years. Given the speed of technological change this is by no means an impossible target, particularly with the growth of internet television packages. With any luck, London and Quadrant residents will benefit from the convenience of reporting faults online and enjoy a better quality repair service, too.