Zen and the art of VFM regulation

The sector is smarting from its dust-up with the HCA following the submission of lacklustre VFM self-assessments in 2013. The regulator has made it clear that if VFM is not taken seriously this year, there is likely to be more unpleasantness in the shape of further governance downgrades, and in its wake deepening sectoral reputational damage. It might not stop there: associations are not loved by the government. A poor show is likely to weaken social housing’s already marginal position in Whitehall and Westminster. It might even herald a return to some form of prescribed ‘one-size fits all’ VFM and the inevitable clunky policing that goes with it: KLOE and AES-type tools, wielded by inspectors of differing capability.

Zen and the art of VFMUnsurprisingly, the sector seems keen to avoid a further run-in. But there is a real risk here of undoing years of progressive co-produced, co-regulation and reverting to a compliance mind-set. At the risk of sounding like a dodgy Zen monk from a bad martial arts film you need to comply without being compliant. At the same time you need to keep a sense of proportion. Smaller associations have to dance to the same tune as the big ones but you’re not expected to throw as many shapes.

The challenge therefore is to be mindful and smart: make the regulatory requirement work for you as a useful performance and transparency tool that is integrated with and improves upon your own systems for understanding success and striving for perfection. The entire system of regulation is, after all, based on a normative model of what a good business should be doing. At the same time, nobody knows your business better than you – you know what level of detail and the kind of tools you need to get a grip on your business. The regulator won’t specify what you need to do here, it just wants to be sure you’ve thought carefully about it and put in place sensible, proportionate arrangements.

Your VFM self-assessment needs to be proportionate too. The art of flowering arranging is not about overwhelming people with every plant in your garden; instead it is about restraint and careful selection to convey meaning as efficiently as possible. The key issues you need to demonstrate:

  • a grip on assets – your understanding of the return (social as well as financial) and how this informs intelligent asset management decisions that improve those returns
  • a grip on operations – quantified evidence on the cost of delivering services compared with previous years and a relevant peer group with clear links between the cost and quality of outcomes
  • evidence of past measurable VFM gains and specific, ambitious, measurable targets for future gains with links made between gains and the achievement of your overall strategy
  • a grip on VFM delivery – demonstrate a strategic approach to VFM, a robust approach to use of resources and the performance management and scrutiny arrangements to achieve the strategy (eg including governance, tenant scrutiny and performance management)
  • an even hand is required – strengths & weaknesses should be considered in the round. Whilst this is an opportunity to tell a positive story about the sector, it is not a crass PR exercise.

This will get you some way to being a deft exponent of the art of VFM. But it’s up to you how much effort you want to put in. However, the last thing we want this autumn is for everybody to be Kung Fu fighting.

Steve SmedleySteve Smedley created our VFM self-assessment template for smaller housing providers and has been running a variety of VFM workshops and projects with SPBM members during 2013 and 2014. For further information please contact us >>

About Steve Smedley

Steve is an Acuity associate and independent consultant. He is author of "Social Hearts and Business Heads" and his experience in Social Housing and enthusiasm for improving services has led him to become a leading thinker and practitioner in the sector.
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