What is the problem?
Richmond Council has introduced an online application procedure for residents who want to be accepted on its housing register to be considered for social housing. In the summer and autumn of 2019, we received disturbing evidence from our clients and advisers that this procedure kept breaking down and that no alternative means of applying was available.
One example was in November 2019 when one of our advisers tried to help a client complete an online application for the Housing Register. After 2 hours and 30 minutes our experienced adviser was still unable to complete the application with the client because the service became unavailable. When she rang the Council, she was told that the Housing Department was unaware of any problems, but that they would report it to the IT Department. It was suggested that she try again at another time. She asked whether the Council staff could help the client because so much time had been wasted trying to complete application online but was told that the client had to complete the online form. She asked to speak to a manager and was informed that no managers were available. Over the next two weeks she tried to access the service several times on behalf of the client but, without success. When she did manage to access the system, she found that all the information previously input had been lost.
Our advisers and clients were not alone in struggling with these problems. Our colleagues in Richmond AID, who help disabled residents in the borough, confirmed that they had faced the same problems in trying to complete applications for their disabled clients and had raised these problems with the Council’s Senior Systems Development Officer (SSDO).
What have we done to help?
Our CEO, Simon Lawson, wrote to the Council’s Assistant Housing Director with the evidence that we had collected of our advisers’ and clients’ difficulties in trying to complete the online application procedure and asked:
- what steps the Council was taking to restore a fully accessible online application procedure
- what alternative means of applying for the housing register would be provided while the online problems were being fixed
- what help Council staff could provide.
This letter led to a meeting on 17 March 2020 between our Research and Campaigns team and the Council’s SSDO and the manager of the Council’s housing advice team. We asked the SSDO to go through the online application form on one of our computers so that we could identify the problems that our advisers had encountered in completing the form and test whether the system would break down. The SSDO completed the form successfully but several changes to the form were agreed to make it easier to understand and simpler and quicker to complete. In addition the Housing Advice Manager confirmed that there was a paper form for applicants who could not use the internet to complete the form and that in exceptional cases where our advisers contacted her on behalf of vulnerable clients she could arrange appointments for members of her team to see them and input their information online for them.
As a result of the Covid-19 restrictions there has been no direct contact with the Council since the meeting on 17 March, but many of the changes to the form agreed at the meeting have been made. We will follow up these changes to test whether the online form is now fully functional and easier to complete and will monitor what additional help Council staff provide to vulnerable clients who still have difficulty providing the information required online.