Randomised Control Trials: A housing case study

By Maggie Houghton - on 23/02/2016

As HACT launches several Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) in the housing sector, Maggie Houghton, Innovation Advisor at Hyde, reflects on their journey to better evidence.

The Hyde Group has a strong tradition of delivering social investment activities to support its core business objectives.  We also have a solid track record of monitoring and evaluating these activities to ensure they create positive outcomes, both for our customers and for the wider business.

We know that traditional evaluation methods can give us excellent qualitative information. Also, emerging tools such as the HACT Value of Wellbeing calculator can help us attach monetary value to our outcomes. However, we have yet to put into use any framework which can establish both causal relationships between intervention and outcome, and also tell us about how effective the intervention is. Therefore, in January we embarked on our first randomised control trial (RCT) in partnership with HACT.

Whilst RCTs are established as the health sector’s method of choice (see Shaun Treweek’s blogpost for an account), a solid argument has been made for why they could similarly be adopted by the housing sector (see Jim Vine’s previous blogpost).  A daunting prospect no less; they come with a certain rigidity which may seem counterintuitive applied to the inevitably varied work of frontline housing - and advice professionals. However, some of the benefits of this approach are already apparent.

For Hyde, the process of setting up the trial has yielded a number of outcomes in itself; it has been a great opportunity to scrutinise our processes, data collection practises and transactions between staff in the organisation. We have identified – and plugged – data gaps. We have identified – and rectified – inconsistencies in reporting. We have identified – and implemented – minor adjustments to our record keeping, which enables us to follow a customer journey between our CRM systems and advisor software. And even this early on in the process, two strong learning points have already emerged; engage staff and keep it simple!

The main part of the trial involves just three members of staff. Because the numbers of staff are so small we have been able to actively engage them with the RCT methodology, co-create the research processes and encourage joint problem solving. Because the trial involves an isolated part of the referral process, the room for procedural error is very small. Where errors have occurred they have been simple to identify. However, despite keeping it this simple we are still aiming to randomise and ultimately compare the outcomes for more than 1,000 customer interactions over a three-month period.

As an organisation it is our aim to provide the thousand customers in those transactions with an effortless experience. At the same time we want to eliminate any waste from our processes to free staff up to carry out the tasks that ultimately matter.  The RCT methodology provides us with a value-neutral tool to justify why we are doing what we are doing the way we are doing it. It helps overcome both the notions that we are doing something because ‘it has always been done that way’, whilst not ‘changing something for the sake of change’.  Any permanent adjustment to our processes will be justified in terms of how well the new way of doing things performed compared to the status quo. For example, at Hyde we are testing whether ‘warming up’ a customer with a text message, using nudge principles, will make them more likely to engage with our specialist advice services, and ultimately sustain their tenancies.  If the trial shows this is effective, beyond the cost of adding the additional step in our procedures, we can justify making it part of our process. However, if there is little or no effect, or even an adverse effect, we can confidently say that we are better off keeping things as they are.

As the sector – and particularly social investment services - operate under increasing pressure to ensure we are as efficient as possible, RCTs give us a way to demonstrate we employ the resources we have available to us in the best possible way.

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