HQN Associate Emma Lindley teases out some questions for government about its recent announcement of a review, in this article first published in the March 2022 issue of Housing Quality Magazine.

The recent announcement by the Department for Housing (I can’t keep up with the name changes any more so I give up and this is what I’m calling it from now on) launching a review of qualifications and professional training has pushed me to put my brain into work mode for a few minutes at the halfway stage of my maternity leave.

If you’ve seen me online or in person anywhere in the last four years, there’s a good chance I will have mentioned the topic of professionalism once or twice.

After becoming fed up of being unable to answer the question ‘what is a housing professional’, and a call from the Housing Studies Association looking for conference papers on this very subject back in 2018, I took it upon myself to conduct some research and tried to come up with an answer.

You can read the write up of this research here, in summary:

Historically, professionalism and professional bodies have been concerned with ensuring members acquire a prescribed body of knowledge and adhere to a strict code of conduct. However, the future of professionalism may focus more on customer-focused self-development within an organisational culture, rather than acquiring technical knowledge through a national institution. Survey respondents focused heavily on qualifications and training when defining professionalism. However, the literature uses a broader definition, including the autonomous exercise of reasoned judgement. Survey respondents considered that the purpose of a professional body is, firstly, to raise standards, and, secondly, to provide leadership and influence others.

Since publishing this, I’ve been involved with a CIH internal professionalism working group, spoken with civil servants leading on the professionalism agenda for the green and white paper and contributed to the development of the new CIH professional standards framework. I’m of course thrilled to see so much activity on this important issue, if not a little frustrated at how long things are taking or that all this work is needed more than 100 years after Octavia Hill started collecting rent, but let’s move on.

So, here are the thoughts that I found circling my brain after reading the press release to announce the review:

• What’s the problem this review is trying to solve? Poor customer service and complaint handling? Poor property conditions and poor tenancy management? If so, this seems more about basic job competence rather than professionalism.

• Whatever the problem is, it seems to have already been decided that the answer lies in qualifications and training – but does it? And if it does, what kind of training? Is it to improve technical knowledge or behaviours? Does the training course or qualification tick the box for the rest of your career? What about CPD or reassessment? And who’s teaching these courses – what qualifications and experience will they have and how will quality be assured?

• What parts of the housing workforce are covered by this review? Anyone who has direct interaction with tenant/resident/customers? Decision makers? Back office/central service teams? How will the qualifications cater for non-housing staff in a housing organisation, if at all?

• And what about specialist housing providers and their staff providing services across a huge spectrum, from domestic abuse refuges to Housing First projects for rough sleepers, to retirement accommodation with nursing care. How will the qualifications cater for those in specialist roles?

• Then, of course, there are local authorities, who will deliver services to tenants from dedicated housing departments, but also from departments serving all residents of the area. How will the qualifications cater for those in broader roles?

• How will success be measured? How will the qualifications and training remain fit for purpose in the rapidly changing world we live and work in?

• Who’s going to pay? For the qualifications, and also for the more highly qualified staff? And will a requirement for certain qualifications and training worsen the recruitment challenges that many areas experience?

My final thoughts are as they were four years ago – is the sector acting sufficiently professionally? How do we judge/measure this? Does the answer to the professionalism problem lie in a high-level framework and a body to enforce compliance, at an organisational and/or individual level?

After six months in the bubble of motherhood, I’m sure there are other questions that I’ve overlooked, so, please do share your thoughts, ideas and hopes for this review.