I am sitting here from the confines of my counterbalance residence in Seattle contemplating technology and its role within a public housing authority or a social housing company if you want to be European/Australian about it. No I am not that damn boring that I cant think of something better to do but after a weekend full of meeting friends, German speaking meet up groups and movies but my mind is drifting back to the work world that awaits me on Monday. Perhaps my mind is still thinking about my meeting in Tacoma on Friday and how the housing authority there is bordering on some revolutionary technology upgrades that will make 90% of us in the housing world drool. Either way technology and process improvement seeped into my subconscious on this gray rainy Sunday and the only way to rid myself of this is to put my thoughts to paper.
What is the situation within public and social housing right now in regards to technology? We are for the most part a very paper driven industry and with that comes the corresponding shit show of lost documents, inefficient processes, massive archives and bitch sessions about becoming paper free. Is all hope lost? While we are probably behind the times, most housing authorities have shown the ability to introduce technology in overarching ways that do improve business processes. I do not personally know a housing authority that did not switch to some type of housing software system that helped automate the process of rent calculations, lease preparation and scheduling of different types of inspections. That is a major win. Most housing authorities implemented varying types of payroll software and accounting software. That is without a doubt a technology solution and should not be forgotten. What I am getting at is while we might be behind the private sector we have shown the ability as an industry to implement large scale technology solutions that improve our processes.
Facing the Future:
The question that faces us now is what is the next step in our evolutionary cycle? Do we poke and prod making small improvements unsure of what we might do or do we get brave look to the future and ask, “What the hell can we do to modernize the way we work while still guaranteeing access and service to our clients who may or may not be keeping up with the technology boom?” Once we open Pandora’s box, all sorts of ideas start coming forward. Document imaging, using i-pads to conduct HQS inspections or close work orders, client portals for paying rent or ordering work, call centers, integrated databases that seamlessly share all information. That is just touching on a few of the potential ideas that might spring up. When there are a million ideals and limited funds how do we decide what to do and how to proceed?
The question of what and how is something I struggle with. I worked at a small and medium size housing authority before coming to Seattle which is a bit larger in scale. I would argue when it comes to technology the fundamental questions of what to do and how to do it still are relatively the same at least from the start. The more I look at my previous situations and current work situation the more I see the similarities. We all want to become more technologically advanced but may need to be more strategic and how we do this. Depending on the size and complexity of your individual organization, how you go about doing this will probably vary. I am becoming convinced that regardless of size, a housing authority needs a technology roadmap. I suppose the time of this roadmap may vary but you need to understand where you want to be at the end of this road.
Deciding where you want to be will be the most important part. Under or over estimating could set your agency back. You need to think outside the box while still being realistic. Do you want to do mobile inspections and work-orders but allow clients to log-in and see where the process is? Do you want this information to automatically update into a client file? Hell, do you want your residents to be able to fill out all the forms including leases online and sign electronically? All of these sound great but it probably wont happen in a year. How many years will this take? If five years, what steps do you need to take to get you to fully automated electronic client files with electronic forms that change language when needed? This is why you need to develop a roadmap instead of piecemealing it. You need to dream about what could be while also building in contingencies for budget cuts, unforeseen issues, staff loss etc..
Ok I hear ya loud and clear! Implementing technology solutions is not as easy as writing up a damn roadmap and plowing ahead. We work in an environment where we don’t know what our budget will be from year to year. Our clients may not be able to use a computer or do annual reviews online. For you small housing authorities, your I.T. department might be half a person who also handles HR the other half of the time. We also deal with countless audits each year that make it hard to know what technology solutions might actually interfere and cause us an audit finding. Perhaps the good news is that we know of all of these constraints from the beginning. There will always be variables but knowing your hiccups is half the battle. Working through these issues in the planning stages should help inform both the contents and length of your roadmap.
Go Forth and Roadmap:
I just told my wife how I planned on writing today about how technology needs to be paired with process improvement to be successful. Its amazing how a blog can change once you start writing it. I will write later about process improvement and technology but I think that this subject is worth its own merits. Lets face the facts, if you work at a housing authority you are already busy as hell and probably cant keep up with your current workload regardless of position. We tend to plan a technology solution in a reactionary way because we are thinking of a current problem that needs an immediate solution. That is how many of us work. We might implement that technology solution and be happy with the results but how does that tie in with all of the other needed improvements? By looking at the short term did you make it harder on yourself in the long run?
Ok, my wife wants me to go to the U-district with her and quit thinking about work on this lazy Sunday. I should also mention that just because I work at a housing authority does not mean that I speak for anyone there or the agency itself. You are getting my personal thoughts which may or may not be helpful.
While I feel a little bit better after writing, I am afraid I opened up a black hole that might have my mind drifting later. If you or your housing company have a I.T. or technology solution, what does it look like? How long did it take you to develop and would you mind sharing with the rest of us? 🙂
P.S. The picture has nothing to do with this blog but I came across it. I cannot remember if I took it or not but it is certainly Prague in the winter.