What Software do you use to Monitor Empty Homes Cases?

Hi All,

For the last 10 years, we've used Microsoft Access as a database management programme to manage individual empty homes cases. I've never been a fan of Access due to its limitations and clunky U.I, but to date it has served a purpose. Recently, after several issues with the functionality of our database, our ICT Department informed us that they're moving away from staff using Microsoft Access and would soon no longer support it.

With this in mind, I'm just wondering what other LA's use for day to day case management and whether any use, or have had created, bespoke case management software?

Any comments / feedback would be welcomed!

Many thanks,

Scott.

Forums: 
Case management

Hi Scott,

We use Civica Flare to monitor our empty homes.  It allows us to detail our notes, attach photographs and documents.  We also schedule in all future actions which generate a daily action list.

All our quarterly reporting, formal/informal interventions, securing etc are also generated via the system as well.

Hope this helps.

Thanks

Natalie

 

Dear Scott,

Like Natalie we used to use FLARE/APP for monitoring our empty homes records. However the problem was that my list of empty homes from council tax came in Excel format, so information had to be re-entered onto FLARE, causing huge duplication of effort and slower effectiveness. Our council tax group uses Information at Work and also Civica OpenRevenues, so I find these really useful - Information at Work makes it very easy and quick to produce letters etc and Open Revenues gives me all I need to know about a property, and this system links into Information at Work so that I can see what contact council tax have had regarding a property.  However neither of these systems help me monitor my results. I can use Information at Work to set a date to follow up, but there's nothing to record my successes/ongoing monitoring.  Which is why I also use an Excel spreadsheet with tailored headings.  So in effect I am using 3 different options which is not ideal.  Another advantage I can think of with Information at Work is that I can send a Memo to council tax colleagues to follow up or attach photos, returned questionnaires etc.  

Lynne Leach, Empty Homes Officer, South Lakeland District Council 

Lynne Leach

It's an interesting issue, and I've created a new forum called Case Management for it. When I get the time I will trawl around our historic discussions to see if there are other posts that should be shifted into it (as this thread has been).

A discussion can only progress if we are clear about the purposes for which we want to collect and process the data.

For example, during my time in Exeter a major part of what we did in the empty homes team was procure temporary accommodation, a process managed by us in detail. Earlier, I had developed an Access database for our ongoing cases but the procurement work caused me to add functionality around the many stages it involved. That included target times as well as actuals and was intended to deliver management reporting  so I could make sure we did not lose potential properties through slow responses, given there were 4 or 5 different people involved. I recall there being 20+ stages - maybe even 30+.

Completely separately, I have developed for EHN the monitoring spreadsheet (in Excel) which in its latest incarnation [full members only] not only monitors different categories of  'success' but also, and in a separate worksheet, calculates earnings and (with plenty of caveats) 'additionality' related to New Homes Bonus - all from the same base data.  As regards the New Homes Bonus aspect, it was demanding enough in Excel and would have been all the more so in Access. I flag this up because it really does help us professionally if we use a common standard for monitoring, and the spreadsheet supports the Guidelines. [See http://www.ehnetwork.org.uk/statsinfo for this].

So these different approaches raise the question of how much of an all-singing all-dancing software product is it reasonable to expect? How much double-handling of data is reasonable? Where do the natural joins belong between different aspects of functionality?

As regards just monitoring of successes, I don't feel there are too many issues with maintaining a separate worksheet because the amount of data and therefore the double-handling is surely pretty small. 

A related question is, do you have control over the software? Can you tweak it for new use cases? Obviously you will have gathered that I like to have control (as Scott in his original post probably did) but I had had a career in software development prior to working in housing so I had a certain level of competence and appetite that made that attractive to me. But that is not necessarily a very common situation.  That said, maintaining records in Excel is not that difficult whilst being relatively easy to tweak.  MS Access or whatever, not so much.

Over time, despite my own love of databases and respect for their ability to avoid duplication, I have come to value a KISS approach (Keep It Simple, Stupid) relying on relatively simple datasets that are more easily interrogated, managed and tweaked, as being preferable in day-to-day office environments where low volumes of data permit such an approach. A tool not a master in other words. 

The interface with council tax is always interesting to me. I used to get a download mainly for statistical monitoring puposes but it also provided the raw data we wanted to drive our case management of the longer-term empties. With that dataset, we paid about £800 to get it written, extracting per-property records for any particular parameter date from the full council tax database. After using it for a couple of years, we discovered it wasn't actually accurate! The processes of extracting valid empty homes data from a database designed for revenue collection proved to have defeated the programmer involved. 

Access to information that sits in the council tax system can be very useful but I am not convinced by the need for an automated transfer into an empty homes case management database, again because volumes in case management are normally relatively low (aren't they?). Brighton are leaders in the automated interface world afaik and they will probably disagree!  But if you set out to maintain a database of all empty homes, that seems a bureaucratic task that has little value compared with maintaining records of the priority cases you are actually working on.  There is however a question of whether an intermediate dataset for Letter1/letter2 mail-merging is valuable, before you actually load data into a full case management dataset.

It would be interesting to figure out

  • what the limitations are of the proprietary software that people use
  • whether there is a case for us somehow procuring common bespoke case management software for empty homes and what the functionality of that should be

Unfortunately, participation in our forums tends to be insufficient (hint hint) to be able to progress those questions very far, but maybe we could do a user survey.

Here endeth the stream of consciousness.

In Liverpool we are currently using Northgate M3

 

M3 advantages

  • It is a multi-user system and the same case file can be updated by many users simultaneously
  • The system administrator can set levels of authority to individual users  to protect data.
  • The system generate worksheets with their own unique reference number.
  • All subsequent worksheets e.g. notice work sheets, prosecution worksheets can be generated easily from the main worksheet and are automatically linked and each with its own unique reference number.  Ideal when serving multiple notices regarding the same property on different people.
  • Information on a new case can be entered under various searchable and distinguishable codes e.g.
    • Department – if the system is being used by more than one team
    • Group – allows us to separate reactive and proactive work
    • Task Group – we have this set up to identify vacant domestic properties, vacant commercial properties and vacant land for auditing our reactive work.
    • Task Type – we have this set up to audit the nature of complaints we receive public health, statutory nuisance, disrepair etc.
  • Notice can similarly be identified into different notice codes and a particular code assigned for a particular type of notice e.g. Section 80 EPA 1990 – allowing audit of notices served.
  • Our system has an in-built gazetteer, every address has a unique property reference number.  Addresses are assigned wards allowing us to audit work on a ward basis – useful for elected member enquiries.  Also good for auditing reactive work across the LA area.
  • The system also records
    • Date and time a new case is created (complaint received)
    • Who created it on the system
    • How it was received (e.g. email, letter, telephone)
    • Who was the source (e.g. ward councillor, member of the public, police/fire brigade etc.).
  • The system can be set up with a service standard response time, which will indicate to the user whether a target date is approaching or has been exceeded.  Target dates can be set at any time with a simple action input.  Notices also generate their own target date.  Officers can use this when managing their workload and we have it set up to indicate the following:
    • Yellow question mark (?) indicates a new case that has not been actioned.
    • A Green tick ( )indicates an action taken within the target time
    • A blue arrow () indicates a target time is approaching.
    • A red cross ( X ) indicates a target time has been exceeded.
  • Compatible with Microsoft Word
  • Stores a raft of standard word documents all of which can easily be mail merged or information automatically added relevant to the property you are dealing with.
  • A reasonably good, easy to use in built reporting/auditing mechanism.
  • Relatively simple to use.
  • Each case has an actions tab as well as other tabs and in the action tab you can enter an unlimited number of actions – important actions can be given their own unique action codes for ease of identification.
  • Files such as document files, PDF files, photographs and emails etc. ca simply be dragged and dropped into the actions tab automatically creating an action.
  • Will store unlimited photos – and other documents.
  • There is a bolt on module specific for Empty Homes. This can be used for prioritising empty homes for action.

 

Disadvantages

  • Our system is not web based so not ideal for remote working however I believe a web based program is on its way
  • More complex auditing can involve additional Crystal software.

 

Hi, Sorry its taken a while for me to respond.

I have, with the help of our IT people developed an access database to record all empty properties and I have a front page which provides me with all the information I need when I take a phone call or if I need to just put a couple of notes in.  I also have a status box where I jot down any interaction e.g. VAT letter, HIH Loan etc. I have a box for a bring forward date and I also have boxes for date return to use and type which works very well for me. 

I have to put in all the new properties that are on the empty homes list I get from CTax on the 1st April each year, but all existing empty properties are already there.  I ahve to do my PI's each quarter and check my access database list which I covert into an excel document against the revised CTax list.  Any property which is on my list and not on the CTax list is technically a property returned to use.  I then check against my individual front sheets to see whether I have had any intervention .  It seems long-winded but is, in fact, very straightforward.  It could be developed into something much more elaborate but it works for me.  The only downside is that I keep all letters and correspondence for each property on files in word but plan to change this to add them to Flare next year so that they are available to all.

I also link my empty homes questionnaires to each property and the prioritisation matrix.  The common denominator is the CT reference number.

I hope this helps. Should you wish to see a copy of the front sheet, I can send you a blank one.