Extra $12m for Housing NZ transformation

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 11:22 10/05/2012

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Housing New Zealand is investing an extra $12 million to complete its Enterprise Transformation Project, under which it is cutting 70 full-time staff and investing in new technology to allow it to centralise the handling of routine inquiries by phone.

The corporation admitted yesterday that phone inquiries from people checking their eligibility for state housing had "gone through the roof", clogging up its contact centres, since it stopped letting people drop into its neighbourhood offices for face-to-face advice last month.

Transformation manager Philippa Jones said the extra money would take the project's budget to $92m. It was originally expected to cost $72m, with an additional $8m overrun allowed for ''contingencies''.

The newly approved funding would not provide any new software features but would let Housing NZ better manage its transition to the new systems, better document them so they would be easier to support in future and ensure it got a "quality solution", Jones said.

The Citizens Advice Bureau was sceptical about the benefits of the overall programme.

"Many Housing NZ clients are not that confident in English and they are often more comfortable talking face-to-face than on the phone," policy adviser Andrew Hubbard said.

Hubbard said it was not uncommon for its own staff to have to wait at least 20 minutes to get through on the phone when trying to help clients.

"It is difficult for a bureau that has got a client who is already frustrated by whatever their issue is."

The CAB met Housing NZ yesterday and Hubbard hoped the extra staff would solve the problem.

However, the call volumes may be a harbinger of future challenges for the transformation programme, he said.

Housing NZ tenancy services manager Kay Read said Housing NZ needed to change the "whole culture" of its business to reflect a new government mandate.

"We have moved from being the 'mothership' of housing. We have had a lot of [staff] who have really wanted to be almost the 'Mother Theresas' of this world and do everything for our customers, rather than just making sure they are housed in our properties and able to sustain that tenancy."

Jones said that while some of that extra work may have been worthwhile, it was often not work staff were trained to do and Housing NZ had systems in place to send referrals to other specialist agencies.

Read yesterday acknowledged clients were finding it difficult to get through to Housing NZ on the phone and were getting frustrated. Housing NZ was bringing forward the recruitment of about 15 extra staff to address the issue.

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Read said Housing NZ might have underestimated the number of inquiries that neighbourhood offices had been dealing with informally, face-to-face.

She said it was "speculation" that might also prove the case with other types of inquiries when they were also switched to the contact centres.

Housing NZ had expected contact centre staff would need to complete 280 "pre-assessments" for state housing each month but they were having to deal with that number every week, she said.

Jones said it was also possible more people were calling because it had advertised the contact centre service and it was now more convenient to inquire.

Contact centre staff should get quicker at screening clients as they became more experienced, Read said.

In Parliament, Labour's housing spokeswoman Annette King said the contact centres were only capable of answering 10,000 calls a week, not the 20,000 plus the Government had promised.

Housing Minister Phil Heatley conceded the transition had "not been without its challenges".

Housing NZ was about to begin the third and final round of systems integration testing for software provided by British company Northgate and Oracle and expected to have all the technology it had purchased to support the transformation programme in place by August, Jones said.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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