When the Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS) was set up in England in 1988 (its forerunner had been set up in Scotland 3 years earlier) the organisation was clear what it was about i.e. ‘Tenants’ and ‘Participation’. By the time it got to offering an accreditation system in 2005 for commercial sale to social housing landlords, both terms had disappeared . What TPAS now claimed to accredit was ‘resident involvement’ (i.e it accredited, and still does, ‘resident involvement quality’). Some years ago it decided that it was actually a ‘Tenant Empowerment Agency’ and indeed its web site branded itself as ‘The Tenant Empowerment Agency’. This year it abandoned that designation in favour of the only marginally more modest ‘Tenant Engagement Experts’. That re-branding also involved turning the P in ‘Participation’ in to a lower case ‘p’ so that ‘TPAS’ became, at a stroke, ‘Tpas’.So Tpas, as we must not call it, has either been long deeply conflicted about what it is actually around to do ( participation, involvement, empowerment, or engagement?) or it simply sees these as synonyms, in which case why bother to switch from one to another since any one will do?
The truth of course, is that TPAS, like most of us who are fellow members of the Tenant Empowerment Industry , is a social chameleon. It shifts its profile (and how it sees and describes itself) to fit with different and evolving policy and political contexts in an effort to keep itself well positioned in relation to the power brokers in social housing, and particularly to organisations that are able to buy its consultancy and training services.
But more important than Tpas’s difficulties around its core purpose , although fundamentally linked to it, is its apparent support for an approach to ‘tenant involvement’ recently covered in an Inside Housing article ( 19-26 August 2016) entitled ‘ Tenant Satisfaction ; is it still relevant”. The gist of the article is that social landlords are increasingly moving from conventional ways of ‘engaging’ or ‘involving ‘ tenants to techniques based upon enhanced customer satisfaction measures. The Chief Executive of the Aspire Group is quoted as arguing that their recent move to reduce their tenant involvement team from 5 to 2 staff members was a positive thing and ‘saved’ more than half the existing £500k pa budget. She acknowledged that ‘Some of the old guard aren’t very happy to be honest because their power base has been disrupted” but defended this approach on the grounds that “We need more people involved”. The Tpas Chief Executive is then quoted as being supportive of this approach to ‘involvement’ on the grounds that it means that tenants are “helping make the ‘difficult decisions’ “.
Now if the idea is that tenants should be asked about the services they receive, and should have the opportunity to influence directly how those services are planned and delivered , then creating such a ‘customer’ role can only be a good thing. And if that is what is meant by ‘involvement’ then, indeed the more of it the better. The problem arises if we want to say or imply that such a form of landlord/tenant relationship constitutes any form of ’empowerment’ of tenants in relation to their landlord (which is implied by having an HCA regulatory standard called ‘Tenant Involvement and Empowerment).The fact that corporate businesses often like to use the word ’empowerment’ to characterise giving their customers (often highly structured) ‘choices’ within a wholly market-based relationship, should have alerted us to the dangers of allowing this word to be used , without real thought, by social housing organisations. In fact ’empowerment’ is a highly complex concept because its root word (i.e. ‘power’) is complex. Using it to characterise the landlord / tenant relationship should only come when we have clearly defined what we mean by it, a definition incidentally that must take in three concepts of power (power-over, power-to, and power with).
Doubtless there will be few of the ‘old guard’ who (apparently) make up the core of tenant activists, who will be too concerned with the niceties around definitions of empowerment. But what they, and other tenants, will be concerned with is this relentless focusing by landlords on treating tenants principally as consumers, with a measurable set of wants and preferences as their defining characteristics , to the exclusion of developing the capacities of tenants, individually and collectively, to be able to intervene in broader landlord structures and processes where policies and procedures are set. These processes ( which often receive vital support from landlord tenant involvement teams) are highly valued by tenants as a whole.They are also far more likely to be recognisable as forms of ’empowerment’than what is now being peddled as ‘tenant involvement’.
So maybe Tpas’s latest re-branding came out of a deep process of self-reflection after all? Perhaps Tpas did indeed come to realise what ’empowerment might mean and thought ‘this is not for us!’. Somehow, I doubt it. But its next step is clear. At the next re-branding it can then call itself the Consumer Satisfaction Advisory Service (CSAS) which can then be made even trendier in the next-re-branding-but-one by streamlining it to ‘Csas’. The world waits.