Homes England looks to digital to help fix a broken housing market

Written by Gill Hitchcock on 4 November 2019 in Features
Features

The government’s housing body is adopting agile, cloud and a DevSecOps model in a bid to become the engine of transformation in the housing market. Gill Hitchcock reports.

Credit: PA

It’s a big ambition, but Homes England aims to fix the country’s broken housing market and boost the number of new affordable homes. To achieve this, the public body responsible for accelerating house building will rely heavily on digital technology. 

“We have a target, which is 300,000 homes per year,” says Brian McIntyre, Home England’s chief digital and technology officer. “And that means a step change in our services. The organisation saw that just scaling up current business processes and headcount was not going to deliver the capacity at the rate, nor the value for money, required. There was a need to rethink and to create internet-age services.”

McIntyre still sees too many spreadsheets being shifted around. He wants more business process automation, data-driven decision making and as little human shepherding as possible.

A major four-year transformation programme, covering end-to-end services to external partners, customers and staff, is close to approval. It will start near the end of this year.

“We want to ensure that every single part of our business is transformed and the outcomes become part of our DNA, not something that happens as a sideshow,” says McIntyre.

It could be said that change began in April with McIntyre’s appointment. 


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One of his first tasks was to recruit a senior digital leadership team of three assistant directors for operations, data and delivery, respectively. His entire digital team is 50-strong. But recruitment is continuing, and he expects this number to grow substantially.

The team will move to agile as the primary mode of delivery. To transform services at the scale and pace needed, it will adopt cloud as the primary mode of digital infrastructure. 

“I see it as absolutely vital to adopt cloud to enable us to cope with the fact that the platforms we are hosting on will be changing under our feet,” says McIntyre. “We need to adopt software products to run on those platforms, at the same time as continually iterating our products to meet evolving user needs.”

His team will also adopt a DevSecOps model, so that software developers, security professionals and operations professionals work hand-in-glove through the development cycle and in a continuous process of improvement. 

McIntyre explains: “The principle is that you don’t develop something over months and then chuck it over to the fence for security and operations. There is never a finishing line. These products are continuously improving and iterating, with security and operations baked into that process all the way through.”

Designing services by understanding what users want to achieve and how Homes England can help them, is fundamental to McIntyre’s approach. Throughout the transformation process, internal and external users will be consulted about their needs.

He cites the service design work of GDS on transactional services, such as applying or renewing passports or driving licences, saying “they have gone to first principles and asked ‘what does the citizen really want?’. 

“Getting investment for land is not quite such a transactional service as applying a passport, but we are using many of the same principles in understanding what an investor wants to achieve, how we can smooth the path to placing the investment in their bank account and for us to track delivery against that outlay.”

A key problem for Homes England is the range of legacy tools inherited from its predecessors, the Homes and Communities Agency and the Housing Corporation. 

For instance, a business change programme, which pre-dates McIntyre’s appointment, revealed a cornucopia of collaboration tools. The effect has been “collaboration ghettoes” with different teams using different tools. 

“We did a comparison of all the collaboration platforms out there on the market, including Google G Suite and Slack, and we consolidated down on a Microsoft tool set,” says McIntyre. “So, we are going for Office 365 as our collaboration platform and we are busy retiring the legacy collaboration platforms and migrating users over. This means people are engaging across the business in ways that didn’t really happen before.”

Common data
Externally, Homes England works with organisations as varied as local authorities, private developers, housing associations, lenders, investors and infrastructure providers. It begs the question, will the transformation programme provide a unified service, or services designed for very different needs? 

McIntyre says the answer is both.

There will be different digital services to enable people to find investment or land, get help to buy and more. Behind this, will be a common data platform. It will work across the business providing data to these services, plus management information so that Homes England can take the heartbeat of its own operations.

McIntyre arrived at Homes England from consultancy Atkins. Through Atkins, he worked at the Cabinet office on grants management. The experience gave him an insight into how different parts of government can take a wide range of approaches to similar things. 

“It taught me to always get right under the skin of what we really trying to achieve. It’s very easy to look at an existing business process and say ‘well, how can we optimise steps three to four?’, rather than saying ‘what is this process here to deliver?’” 

Again, through Atkins he was chief technologist at the Ministry of Defence and focused on improving its digital architecture. At Homes England he is applying that experience by rebooting its IT architecture, creating a new function, new skills and a new governance process. 

“I see it as absolutely vital to adopt cloud to enable us to cope with the fact that the platforms we are hosting on will be changing under our feet."
Brian McIntyre, Homes England

“We are making more intentional design decisions and avoiding launching from tactical solution to tactical solution, a position that many government departments find themselves in.”

The biggest hurdle McIntyre faces in all this is the pace of delivery. He realises that he needs to scale up digital capacity quickly and find the right skills to support this. Inevitably, he will need to bring in external contractors. But he is keen to make sure that temporary staff are integrated into the organisation’s new ways of working.

In four years’, McIntyre would like Homes England to be the engine of transformation of the housing market, saying: “We have a unique challenge because we manage some very large financial transactions and that requires back office systems and front house services, rather like a financial services organisation.

“I think there is an opportunity in Homes England to create outstanding financial services in government and to be an example of how these can be delivered.”

 

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