By Charmaine Simei, Director of Community Investment at Longhurst Group

For as long I’ve been in housing (some 25 years now), this question remains a perennial – and, inevitably, some organisations do better than others.

True representation is difficult because I’m not sure we’re clear we know what we want to do with this representation when we have it.

Do our structures, operating models, policies, and procedures really enable inclusiveness, diversity, or flexibility?

The past 18 months have transformed many organisations, with health and wellbeing, equality and diversity and inclusion central to our social purpose. But have we really become ‘people first’ entities?

It seems this notion of true representation has surpassed us, despite the most honourable of intentions and acres of completed action plans, which, sadly, represent largely tokenistic, short-term manifestations.

Hopefully, that’s not being too negative, merely a recognition that real impact and/or legacy is rarely measured or considered, and that the same groups of people, the same communities, remain left behind.

Our intention and drive as a sector to shift the dial on representing and incorporating a wider group of voices into our engagement and investment initiatives has never been more determined, but I’m concerned that economic crosswinds have the potential of thwarting our good intentions – and that storm has yet to properly begin.

With community centres closing, third party charities struggling, and many organisations exiting offices with digitalisation the clear way ahead, how will we genuinely ‘lean in’ and take the time to stop, look, listen, and respond to the communities we used to refer to as ‘hard to reach’?

To move forward, we may need to look back. In the mid-90s, there appeared to be far greater bandwidth for diversity, engagement, and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion seemed far more embedded in policy and practice. It was business as usual. Engagement and the customer voice ran through everything we did.

The 2009 financial crash and subsequent ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in 2011 brought significant changes, which almost happened overnight.

We ushered in the age of austerity, a series of right to reside policies, the notion of creating a hostile environment, the awful atmosphere created within families and across communities around Brexit – and this all impacted how we worked and what we prioritised.

Still under the grip of the pandemic, which has most negatively impacted some of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, housing associations can better represent communities by showing a willingness to be humble and to listen and learn. We need to understand our communities post-pandemic and how we supported or curtailed our customers in the last 18 months.

Our willingness to ‘lean in’ and hear people will take us closer to the customer centric approach outlined in the Social Housing white paper. We have an opportunity to establish a new relationship and a new dialogue by being honest, transparent, and willing to change.

We must think longer term. We can’t just go from action plan to action plan; we need to understand and appreciate the distance travelled and the impact of our actions.

In his 2017 review of the criminal justice system, David Lammy MP stated that ‘if the data doesn’t stack up, explain or reform’. Wise words indeed.

If we want to represent our customers, we need to show that their voices have an impact at a local, regional, and national level.

That’s a collective, joined up responsibility. We need to show up and act as an ally.