Many organisations survey their customers, but few make them part of the fabric of the organisation itself. At the Cheshire Division of Riverside Housing Association, tenants sit on boards and committees at both divisional and local level, and play a vital part in designing new housing; their involvement even extends to taking part in recruitment interviews.
Riverside's Cheshire Division, shortlisted in last year's Public Sector category, romped home this year and was narrowly pipped to the overall winner's prize. The runners-up were two educational establishments - Halesowen College in the West Midlands and Angus College in Arbroath.
Riverside Housing Association is one of the country's largest providers of social housing, with 21,000 properties distributed from Merseyside down to Leicestershire. Its high standards of public service have achieved various accolades, such as the Charter Mark and Investor in People status. The Cheshire Division, based in Runcorn, has set out to take those standards even higher, pulling the rest of the organisation along with it.
Last year, Riverside Cheshire received a huge endorsement from the 650 tenants of Colshaw Farm, a run-down estate in the affluent suburb of Wilmslow. Presented with the possibility of a stock transfer, Riverside campaigned tirelessly to find out what the tenants wanted and find ways of delivering. The results were spectacular: in a record-breaking ballot, 87% of tenants voted and 97% opted for the transfer. Their rewards included double-glazing in every home and a hopper bus service set up in conjunction with a local bus company.
Riverside impressed our judges with its commitment to improvement, and the detail it applied. For example, in its repair service, which handles 14,000 repairs each year, an Improvement Group came up with 82 recommendations, of which 27 have already been implemented. These include the introduction of pre-paid repair response cards; the ability of operators in Riverside's call centre to access the diaries of sub-contractors to make appointments; and a streamlining of the rates schedule.
But Riverside Cheshire is equally impressive in its analysis of the operating environment and its forward vision. It not only looks beyond housing management to the regeneration of communities, but also has specific strategies to counter the 'ghettoisation' of communities caused by more affluent members leaving to buy their own properties.
As Tom McGuire, the association's effervescent divisional director, puts it: 'Unlike much of the country, we are in an area of declining demand for housing. And that means we are having to find innovative solutions to make our product better.' Innovation has been particularly demonstrated in a pioneering PFI housing contract with the MoD, in which penalties have been devised for service failures; for example, if grass verges are allowed to grow more than three inches long, or a repair man is late for an appointment.
Most of what has been achieved at Riverside Cheshire inevitably comes down to people. Staff regularly give up their own time to help residents' groups with carnivals and fun days; one particularly enterprising employee dressed up as Father Christmas and drove round a deprived estate, distributing presents to children.
Chris Emery, senior customer service manager, recounts with pride how, when the head office was refurbished last year, staff worked from empty flats nearby so that they could remain close to tenants. 'We lost only one service day during the entire refurbishment,' she says.