By Joel Pringle
In mid-2011, Housing NSW released a consultation draft of its Tenant Engagement Framework. Public submissions were invited. The document contained high level statements about engaging with tenants, but little information on the steps that will be taken to ensure that these principles are implemented.
At around the same time, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal of NSW (IPART), a markedly different type of government agency to Housing NSW, released a discussion paper, as part of a review of consumer engagement.
Although the two agencies have different functions, it is worth comparing the approaches to consider what government agencies could learn from each other.
To provide some background, Housing NSW is the public housing provider of the NSW Government. The purpose of the Tenant Engagement Framework, as outlined in the consultation draft, is to enable: “applicants, tenants and residents of public and Aboriginal housing properties to know what sort of contributions they can make to the management of their housing services, their tenancies and their communities” and to “help clarify to Housing NSW staff why, when and how they can engage public and Aboriginal housing applicants, tenants and residents in the provision of housing services, undertaking asset redevelopments and estate renewal, and in building community capacity”.
The document, however, provides little to assure the community that the strategies and principles for community engagement will be put into practice, and there is no evidence in the document that alternate approaches were considered and how the final choices were made. The consultation draft was presented as a finalised document, without allowing the reader into the deliberations and decision-making processes. In this way, the ability of stakeholders to engage with the consultation draft was inevitably limited from the outset.
It should be noted that after the period of consultation and up until the writing of this article, nothing further has been released in response to this consultation draft.
To the contrary, the approach of IPART has historically been very different. IPART is the economic regulation body of the NSW Government, and has responsibility for regulating prices and licensing of various monopolies that fall under government responsibility; this includes utilities such as energy and water, public transport and Council rates.
In outlining why consumer engagement is important, the IPART-commissioned report states that direct engagement by government with customers of monopoly and regulated services is required, because consumers are unable to freely choose their supplier, unlike the competitive market, which gives consumers the option of shopping around.
This statement is also clearly applicable to services provided by the State to people unable to participate in markets for reasons of affordability or other disadvantage. For people on fixed and low-incomes, Housing NSW is the monopoly provider of housing to people who are cut off from the expensive private housing market, and who would otherwise be homeless or at risk of homelessness.
This justifies the comparison between Housing NSW and IPART’s approaches to community development. Housing NSW residents are unable to self-impose higher standards of landlord services by exercising market choice, therefore it is imperative that other approaches are substituted to ensure that public housing tenants are provided the dignity of housing at a standard acceptable and available to the rest of the community, above general, bare minimum tenancy regulations.
The approach of IPART is influenced by an understanding of the impact on the community in failing to adequately consult them in regulating monopoly services such as water and energy. Significantly for this comparison, IPART regulatory decisions do not have an impact on its budget and it has at least nominal independence from the government of the day.
In contrast, Housing NSW faces the challenge of its policy decisions directly influencing its own budget, which is already under-resourced and increasingly more so in this time of austerity. Housing NSW also faces the political risk of failing to meet its self-defined service benchmarks, not to mention the added pressure of having to answer directly to a Minister.
These reasons are likely to explain, at least in part, the apparent willingness of IPART to approach engagement through a much more consumer-focused framework, and for Housing NSW to operate in a much more cautious and risk-adverse framework. Rather than being a criticism of Housing NSW, this highlights the additional pressures faced by internal policy makers, who are tasked with developing community engagement principles targeted at tenants.
But, let’s talk more about the IPART discussion paper. IPART commissioned an external consultant, Cambridge Economic Policy Associates Ltd, to produce the discussion paper that canvassed interaction approaches to community engagement. Different options and case studies were provided, with the pros and cons of each approach presented for consideration. The IPART paper provides four forms of consumer engagement appropriate to IPART’s context, and proffers that these approaches fit on a continuum of tools appropriate for the circumstances. These tools are public consultation, consumer panels, surveys and constructive engagement.
These tools are concrete examples of how Housing NSW could have shown the community that it was willing and able to put its strategies and principles into practice in a way that respects and encourages tenant participation.
Further, the IPART paper provides a list of preconditions that Ofgem, an energy regulator in the United Kingdom, consider important for effective engagement. These preconditions include understanding consumer needs (for third party advocates), understanding the regulatory regime, and having the resources and willingness to engage. The paper goes further to explain that willingness to participate will be higher when the parties believe they can influence decisions. This might be otherwise stated as a need for trust to be developed between consumers and the agency consulting.
An important theme to Ofgem’s approach is that consulting bodies are required to ensure that the community has the knowledge and resources to engage, and that the consulting body has to work to build the trust of the community. Transparency in decision-making is therefore critically important, a lesson that many NSW State agencies could take on board. Without these preconditions, community engagement will merely meet the short-term needs of the agency and not the needs of the community. This is often referred to as tokenistic; a box ticking exercise.
Of course, it’s not enough to have a well-considered discussion paper if it is not followed through. And here, IPART’s reputation is heartening and lauded by stakeholders, including the independent Energy and Water Ombudsman.
IPART has used its energy regulation determinations to recommend that the government ensure that consumers and their representatives are adequately resourced, including through the extension of assistance with technical knowledge not otherwise available to those outside the industry. This is an acknowledgement of information imbalance, which is sought to be redressed.
IPART staff work very closely with all stakeholders in their regulatory processes, and engagement is flexible to meet the needs of all parties. In a measure of respect for stakeholders and to promote transparency, IPART uses its reports to publish the range of views offered, and the reasons that certain options were chosen over others.
The shame is that the Tenant Engagement Framework discussion paper does not reflect the good engagement practices that Housing NSW itself has shown in certain circumstances. For example, the processes behind the development of Community Actions Plans has shown that Housing NSW is capable of being creative and responsive to tenant needs, rather than ignoring them.
Where this has been done well, it is in Housing NSW’s interest to make public any evaluations of these processes, and to ensure that these become part of the broader understanding of how community engagement can and has been done.
Those of us with an interest in tenant engagement can only hope that the now over twelve month delay in responding to submissions indicates that Housing NSW is considering these exclusions to its draft Tenant Engagement Framework.
WANT MORE INFORMATION?
IPART released its final report of the review in August 2012. To read the final report and the associated background documents, visit the agency’s website.
You can find out more about the Tenant Engagement Framework and read the consultation draft discussed in this article by visiting the Housing NSW website.
Originally published in Inner City Voice, Issue 116, Spring 2012