4 October 2023

Jamie Ratcliff of Sovereign Network Group talks about why we should aim for honesty and not perfection. He explains how this affects his approach to repairs, leadership, and board recruitment.

Everyone knows that the housing sector is subject to an incredibly challenging environment right now. I’m sure every housing association knows there are parts of their service which need to improve.

At Audit and Risk in November I’m going to say a little bit about how we need to use these as drivers to inspire and motivate existing and new colleagues to rise to the challenge, while warning of the dangers of apathy and despair.

I saw a powerful X (formerly Twitter) post by photographer Marc Davenant the other day. It showed Mr & Mrs M and their four children in their Birmingham council home in 1969. The conditions they were living in were awful with no mattress, hot water, and damp and mould. Marc warned “nostalgia is a seductive liar”.

The fact that services have improved so much since then can also be used to steel the our resolve to address the many challenges that lie ahead. To show colleagues what is possible.

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I think we also need to be crystal-clear that whilst services need to improve, perfection will not be possible. Perfection is not possible in any complex situation. That applies as much to housing associations as anyone else. Last year, Network Homes attended 41,735 repairs. Of course, we aren’t going to complete them all perfectly.

From talking to our residents they don’t expect us to – what’s most important to them is we put the mistakes right as fast as possible and communicate clearly as we go. From my perspective the next most important thing is learning from it and improving as a result.

This is really important in leadership too. I don’t want my organisation to have a set of ‘superwomen’ and ‘supermen’ leaders. People like that – or even who are perceived in that way – are much harder to challenge. To improve fastest we need to unlock challenging and diverse perspectives.

There’s a whole load of things that are needed to create an environment that encourages that. For me, one of the most important factors is a leadership which is open and clear about their willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Aiming for honesty (not perfection) in housing

I don’t want my organisation to have a set of ‘superwomen’ and ‘supermen’ leaders. People like that – or even who are perceived in that way – are much harder to challenge.

The same is true at board-level, where I think we should all be looking at how to add different perspectives and then truly enable them to play their part in decision-making. My advice to new board members (and I’m sure colleagues would tell me I could take more of my own advice) is learn when to be quiet.

In the areas where you are an expert, you should be quietest. An expert’s viewpoint can stifle debate and prevent other perspectives from being aired. As a board member I think it's the area you are least expert in where you can offer the most valuable perspectives.

This only works if you have a truly diverse board. The NHF guide to non-executive recruitment that I co-wrote with Bunmi Atta from Southern Housing (as part of our work on the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Housing member group) can help you do this. If you haven’t got time to read it all, the shortest way to summarise is to say you should ‘recruit for difference’.

Associations that aim for perfection can disappoint themselves and their residents, and waste a whole load of money along the way. Honesty and open communication go a lot further than trying to be flawless. We need more of this as a sector to address current challenges and improve further. I will say more at Audit and Risk 2023 in November.

Jamie Ratcliff

Jamie Ratcliff is Chief Communities and Sustainability Officer at Sovereign Network Group. He is speaking on a panel on skills at Audit and Risk 2023.

At Network Jamie has cross-cutting responsibility for human resources, learning and development, strategic asset management, sustainability, information technology, transformation, service improvement, external relations, resident engagement, marketing and communications, complaints, internal audit and special projects.

He has nearly 20 years’ experience working at a senior level in housing at local, national and regional levels, including commencing the Stirling Prize winning Goldsmith St and being responsible for housing for the current and previous Mayors of London. He has overseen the completion of affordable homes for over 150,000 people, personally negotiated multi-billion-pound affordable housing settlements and successfully launched the UK’s first publicly available database of criminal landlords. In March 2023 Network announced their intention to merger with Sovereign Housing Association in October 2024. On completion of the merger Jamie will assume the role of Chief Communities and Sustainability Officer for the new organisation.

Aiming for honesty (not perfection) in housing