Create strategic impact through modern collaboration practices

Deborah Dickson
May 4, 2021

This is a guest post by Deborah Dickson
Executive Director, People & Safety for the
SA Housing Authority

A case study presentation to Teamgage audience in April 2021

If the last 12 months of pandemic-related chaos has taught us anything it is about the necessity of connection and collaboration in our workplaces, made all the more challenging by physical distancing, and sometimes in spite of marvelous technological innovations and rapid uptake.  

Connection and collaboration are the underpinning conditions for organisations to deliver on their strategy, and they also provide the lubrication for constructive workplace cultures.  

By extension, the idea of creating impact necessitates change.  

Change, whether it be at the individual or system level, is difficult, often messy, never linear and there are many forces acting against it.

It’s also never a one size fits all approach, so describing the context is important to understand the approach.

This post will draw on the experiences of the SA Housing Authority to date in attempting to bring significant change and impact through collaboration.

Background to SA Housing Authority

Most readers would be familiar with public housing and the role of housing departments either directly as a tenant or child of a tenant, or through someone you know, or perhaps you live in a neighbourhood with public housing. In most jurisdictions in Australia, housing functions have been around for decades and South Australia is no different.

The housing system is complex and multi-faceted. For most people, our home has many sources of meaning and importance through all stages of life. For most people, our home has many sources of meaning and importance through all stages of life. It is obviously necessary for safety and security, it is foundational for individual growth and it plays a critical part in shaping future generations. Housing is fundamental to social cohesion and stability. It is also a means of self-expression and in this country it is a corner-stone of wealth creation and maintenance through generations.  

Public housing is only one part of it. And yet it plays a significant role.

  • In South Australia, the Housing Authority is landlord for close to 35,000 properties  
  • It provides support and oversight for thousands of properties run by community housing providers
  • It supports customers into private rental accommodation by providing private rental bonds to close to 20,000 customers a year
  • It funds emergency accommodation to those escaping domestic violence and other emergency situations
  • And it funds a myriad of support and shelter programs to assist people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless

What you may not know is how much the nature of the provision of housing has changed, and how much its audiences are now significantly different to what they might have been even as recently as a decade ago. Once dominated by working families, now, overwhelmingly, public housing tenants and those on the waitlist are drawn from the among the most marginalised and disadvantaged in society. And inter-generational trauma and welfare dependency is driving up waitlists and support expectations, with very little accompanying increases in supply to all forms of affordable housing.

In short, we have a system that does not work for the audiences it now serves.

It is this context that saw the SA Housing Authority established as a statutory authority with its own Board in 2018 and separated from the Department of Human Services.  

Our strategy is significant and very ambitious.  

  • We need to lift the supply of affordable housing in South Australia by being innovative with the use of current assets to yield both fit-for-purpose public housing and also additional housing for sale at affordable prices.
  • We need to transform the way in which the Authority operates, including its entire service model, how it manages its assets and how it engages with and supports its customers.
  • And we are the catalyst for an entire systemic reform across social housing, homelessness and private rental, with additional linkages into mutual exchanges with required support services or referrers such as Health, mental health services, drug and alcohol services, Department for Child Protection, SAPOL, Corrections.

Our strategy, in short is about better enabling movement through the housing system, not just to better meet demand, but to improve independence and life outcomes for the people we support.

As you can imagine, the scale and extent of change both inside and external to the organisation is significant.

Questions we have asked ourselves:

  • How do you get a 85 year old entity to move with speed?
  • How do you work with, influence and co-create a paradigm shift across a whole system that has been incentivised to operate in a way that is competitive and no longer serves?
  • How do you close the gaps between where a workforce is operating at, and where it needs to be to deliver?
  • How do we do all of this with less resources every year?
  • How do you capture the goodwill and commitment of a workforce that sincerely believes in its work, and ask them to completely change what they do every day?
  • And most importantly, are we clear on what this will mean for future generations and do we agree on why this work is so important?

Strategic impact in this space demands collaboration. The issues at play are not neatly solvable. Much of what we are doing has not been tried elsewhere. It requires a whole new level of individual and collective meaning making, awareness, critical thinking and experimentation … something which can be extremely difficult in a public service context. However, failure is the only other option.

Our focus so far has been on:

  • Establishing our strategy: who we need to evolve to be and how, what that means for our unit business plans and our leaders
  • Setting up our baseline corporate services, developing a digital roadmap and setting a blueprint for culture change
  • Commencing significant reform programs around homelessness and asset renewal  
  • Baselining our technology so that increasingly we can allow customers to self-service for the administrative tasks and free up staff time for the far more valuable work of supporting and connecting with our clients.

Our culture change challenge is significant and the approach is a very long play.

Our goals in the short term are to lift the level of accountability, planfulness, critical thinking and agility without undermining the personal connection that many staff have to the community impact of the organisation, and to stabilise and build confidence and trust in the organisation itself.

Over the longer term we need to evolve to become an organisation that has mature structures and continuous improvement approaches capable of solving intractable problems. The kind of environment where people are safe (physically and psychologically), and where they are encouraged in their own maturity development as well as skill development on the job.

So what is the actual work?

1. To rapidly improve cross organisational systems and processes to make the work easier

Sample tactics: digitising our services, introducing self-service for our customers and tenants, rolling out mobile technology to staff in the field, digitising safety, performance development, contract management processes, exploring experimental predictive analytics from remote monitoring of housing assets, exploring digital collaboration communities amongst tenants to house share, or swap properties.

2. Leadership upshift

We are currently developing our leadership framework that will clarify expectations of what it means to be a leader – at any level – at the Authority. This will then drive the leadership development programs we run. This will then drive the leadership development programs we run, to incorporate both skill development and personal growth to enable our leaders to lead through change.

3. Team cohesion

Not surprisingly, teamwork is a critical and underpinning requirement. Starting with our top teams through team coaching and enterprise leadership approaches. Other work in the team space is about providing clarity and linkages between the ten year strategy and team / individual roles – role descriptions, performance plans, regular performance development discussions, KPI and reporting frameworks, visibility across the business.

Bringing it all together is Teamgage, which we commenced with last year and are gradually rolling out across the organisation, team by team, to enhance our capacity to engage with colleagues.

4. Renew service model to clarify our offerings and delivery

Whilst not immediately obvious as a culture change vehicle, this is the trojan horse of our culture change strategy as it will impact the day to day work of the majority of our team. This is the most significant component of internal system and workforce change. It will be greatly assisted by technology and process improvement work, along with workforce planning and customer journey mapping and segmentation.

5. Extend safety leadership and employee wellbeing focus

Safety and wellbeing is of critical importance in an environment that is increasingly emotional and aggressive. Beyond the threat of physical harm, is the cumulative impact of vicarious trauma on our team members. We are currently building the scaffolding to enable both tools, training, and systemic ‘buffers’ to allow staff to better self-monitor and manage their own resilience to this work.


Change of this scale is really about small nudges that add up to a big shift.

At this stage the SA Housing Authority is just beginning and the hardest work is yet to come as our teams begin to make choices about there willingness to engage with the new direction.  

How we measure the success of this along the way is through the behavioural patterns we can see, the language used, the stories told, the bravery of the questions asked.

We want to go from language that is about ‘they, them and those’ to ‘I, we and us’.

We want the focus of decisions to always be around customer outcomes and independence.

We want to see capacity to continuously improve practices and process.

We also want to see long-range solutions that impact future generations, and not just today’s customers.

Finally, lofty as it may be, I would love to hear teams voice that collaboration and what they learn from each other for the benefit of our customers, are what excites them about their jobs.

About Deborah Dickson

Deborah Dickson is an experienced executive with a particular focus on organisational and culture change and vertical leadership growth.

Previously Head of Retail for HomeStart Finance, South Australia’s key enabler of assisted housing finance solutions, Deborah is now the Executive Director, People & Safety for the SA Housing Authority.

There she is charged with organisational reform and capability building to enable the achievement of an ambitious ten year housing and homelessness strategy that will change the way this sector delivers to the South Australian community in the future.

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