Mobile technology and Public Housing: Is it time?

My first natural response to this question is, “Why the hell are we even asking such a stupid question?”  I am inclined to gravitate to technology solutions at a housing authority because I personally feel like we as an industry are behind the times.  Most public housing authorities/social housing companies I visited across the USA, UK, Germany, The Netherlands, and Portugal are very paper driven and the idea of using smart phones or ipads to do work is still a ways off.  Yes I saw a few doing it,  but as a percentage I would be surprised if its more than 10%-15% across the whole industry regardless of the country.  While technology can be an answer, should we be jumping into mobile technology or keep the status quo?

Lets examine some of the mobile programs that a housing authority can use that might make life easier.

  • Mobile Work Order-Most modern housing software programs are offering options that will allow your maintenance staff to accept work orders on a mobile device and close them out.  That is of course a great option and it means the paper dance can stop.  You no longer need to go through the process of printing work-orders and getting them to your techs one time a day.  Now you can push out work orders at any point of the day and look at level loading routes and workloads throughout the day as workflow comes in.  Staff can open a new work order while in the field and save the time of it needing to be routed out.  This also offers the opportunity to enjoy real time data on what is happening in the field as work orders are opened and closed and materials are being used.  This option might make a few of you out there drool.
  • Mobile Inspections: What do we love more than anything at a housing authority?  Inspections of course!  Yearly public housing inspections, HQS, move in, move out, special inspections and lets not even get started about REAC, tax credit and other city/state inspections.  Don’t think an inspection app will save you time.  Think about this.  If you have 5,000 unit and your inspector/inspectors spends 2 minutes and 30 seconds just reentering data from a paper form to a software system, that is 125 hours or three weeks and five hours.  That is not counting all of the other crazy inspections that are going on.  I am probably being generous in saying only 2.5 minutes being wasted.  There is a lot of streamlining that mobile inspections can bring.  Instead of waiting until the end of the day to create inspection generated work-orders, you can create them real time.  There are clearly benefits to mobile inspections.
  • Tablets For Lease Up– There are a lot of private real estate companies having people sign lease up documents on tablets while out in the filed.  Yes this is allowed.  The lease can then be emailed to the tenants email account.  I already hear the complainypants!  “But Josh, tax credit rules say we have to have people sign all documents in front of us on paper!”  I hear you loud and clear.  This might not be an optimal solution right off the bat, but give it a thought.  This flexibility might come in handy at some point.  I spoke with a colleague who told recently leased an apartment in the Seattle area.  She wanted her son on the lease but he was out of the state.  The property manager emailed the lease to the son who electronically signed it and sent it back a few minutes later.  This saved a lot of time and effort even if it was just printing it, signing it and faxing back. The technology for doing our processes on mobile devices is becoming stronger every day.  You may not be ready for it yet, but open up the brain and start planning for the future.
  • Electronic Forms– This is my favorite.  When I worked for another housing authority, we made all of our changes of circumstances electronic.  When we looked at the data on the backside of the electronic form, we saw that 65% of the forms were filled in on mobile devices!  Numbers might have changed since then but to be honest the form was not even optimized for mobile devices yet.  I visited a housing authority that had all electronic forms in Texas.  They did push them out to mobile or online versions yet but one has to think that this is coming soon.  How many of you are already doing online applications?  Check to see how many of those are being completed on mobile apps? The last major waitlist opening I was part of showed that the online application was completed on mobile devices around 45% of the time.  How about third party verifications you might ask.  I saw one housing authority using a scan app where they could take pictures of the third party verifications like bank statements or pay stubs with an ipad. They then uploaded the image directly to their document image system without ever using a scanner.  Crazy right?

Process Problems and Limitations;  No I am not trying to just sell you on technology.  I think it is pretty damn easy to look at mobile technology as a saving grace without understanding the root causes of many of our issues.  We think implementing a new program will make everything better.  I can promise you that if you have process problems before, you will have process issues after. If you are seeing a lot of inefficiency in your processes, it might be better to draw out a process map and look at the way you do work right now.  If you don’t know how to do that, look back about three posts.  Identify the major hiccups in your processes and try to squeeze them out.  That will help with any implementation.  Also, when implementing a new technology, you need to think differently about the future state process.  Something should change!  If you are doing everything the same but adding a mobile technology, there is a strong possibility you are not doing everything you could be doing to utilize this new tool.  Always associate process improvement with technology.  Do not blindly implement mobile solutions without thinking through your work or you will be disappointed!

Conclusions: I write a lot about public and social housing because I think it is an interesting field and our work is unique but so similar to other industries.  We look to other industries longing for their technology but the reality is we have a lot of quirks in what we do and that makes us distinctly different from the private market or even other government agencies.  That does not mean we cant grow and improve by using ideas like mobile solutions, but it does mean we need to be realistic and ensure that it is done in a sensible way.  If you think for two seconds that we should be just like the private sector in the way we operate, I think you need to go spend a week in the field at your sites.   That does not mean that we cannot be efficient and well run, it just means the work that we do is different.

Who out there is using mobile technology?  What are you doing and what challenges are you seeing?  Anyone doing annual reviews online yet? Please share!  We all want to be you!

The sun is up and it is Friday morning so I am heading to the office soon!  I will try to keep my own words in my head as I work on different mobile technology solutions.   Have a great Friday!,

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