Revolutionising homelessness data in Wales: Steps towards a centralised data collection system

Published 04/10/2018   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

This is a guest blog article from Dr Ian Thomas, WISERD.

Following the enshrining of the ‘prevention agenda’ in Welsh housing legislation through the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in England places similar legal duties on local authorities to prevent homelessness. Alongside the changes in legislation, England has also instigated a new statutory homelessness data collection and reporting system. Under the old collection system, each local authority would return aggregate counts of households assisted under statutory homelessness legislation to central government - a similar approach is currently adopted in Wales. The new data collection system in England, the Homelessness Case Level Information Collection, requires local authorities to submit data on each individual/household assisted under the Homelessness Reduction Act. Individual/household level monitoring of homelessness legislation is not unique to England, with Scotland adopting this approach since 2001.

Along with moves towards centralised individual/household level data collection and reporting by statutory homelessness services, new forms of case management and monitoring of rough sleeping are being considered in both Wales and Scotland. The new Street Homeless Information Network (SHIN) in Wales is a system being developed to store in-depth data about people sleeping rough and/or engage in street based lifestyles. As noted in the National Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee inquiry into rough sleeping in Wales, SHIN will help improve the accuracy of estimates of people sleeping rough in Wales, in addition to providing a platform for cross-agency working.

In Scotland, one of the recommendations from the Scottish Government's Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group was to develop a new platform for integrating data on people sleeping rough from across statutory and non-statutory services. To this end, the Centre for Homelessness Impact has been tasked by Scottish Government to explore options for a national system of sharing data.

These different developments across the UK illustrate the perceived importance of centrally collecting individual/household level data. Whilst aggregate data are useful for monitoring overall levels of homelessness assistance, to assess longer term outcomes and what works in preventing/alleviating homelessness, individual level data are needed. Now is therefore an appropriate time to reconsider how statutory homelessness data are collected and reported in Wales. Accordingly, Welsh Government has part-funded a project with the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence to explore options for a new statutory homelessness data collection system that would centrally collect data on individuals/households assisted under the Housing (Wales) Act.

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Learning from others

Rather than start from scratch, there are a range of local, national, and international data collection systems that Wales can draw on in redesigning its approach to statutory homelessness data. No one approach will provide the solution for Wales, given that data collections vary by purpose, legislative context, and general data infrastructures within each locality. However, different aspects of these systems will be considered so that the best option can be found. As an example, Canada provides an interesting case study of how different forms of data collection can contribute to both local and national reporting on homelessness.

The National Homelessness Information System (NHIS) in Canada brings together data submitted by homelessness service providers working under the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Though organisations can submit their data directly to the NHIS, the Canadian Government also offers free to use case management software called the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS). The HIFIS software is downloadable by organisations, such as homelessness shelters, and can form the basis for their local case management systems. A condition of using the software is that the organisation also agrees to provide their data to NHIS.

However, the Calgary area has taken a collective approach to homelessness data collection and reporting by adopting a locally administered Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The Calgary HMIS enables participating organisations to share information about people who are homeless, identify individuals using multiple services, and refer cases to other organisations. To share data within organisations and with others on the HMIS, consent is sought from the person using the service. Calgary therefore illustrates how a system that enables case management and data sharing between organisations, can also be used as a means of reporting and monitoring homelessness service activity, with the data from the HMIS being submitted to the national data collection system.

The key to success

Simply creating a new system will not necessarily attract local authorities to use it; each authority has its own working practices and methods of collecting data, which may clash with a new system. Therefore the key to the uptake and successful integration of a new homelessness data collection system is engagement with stakeholders in its design. Engagement with local authorities will mean that the collection will be of relevance to their work under the Housing (Wales) Act, increasing the likelihood that authorities will be able, and willing, to work with the new system. Engaging with stakeholders also creates a shared meaning for the new data collection system, specifically its purpose, including how data are to be used by Welsh Government, by whom, and what safeguards will be in place around data retention and analysis. An example of the consequences of failing to build this shared meaning comes from New Zealand.

In 2016, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) in New Zealand changed funding contracts with non-government organisations (NGOs) to include a requirement that they disclose personal data on clients to MSD. However, after being approached by several NGOs, the Privacy Commissioner began a review of the demand by MSD for client level data. The Commissioner’s review found that the purpose of the data collection was unclear, and that the lack of sufficient evidence and consultation on why the new data collection was needed, and could not be met through other means, was ‘a serious deficit in the policy development process’. This is something we wish to avoid in Wales.

As part of the options appraisal for a new statutory homelessness data collection system, a stakeholder survey will be conducted with the aim of gathering more information on the current use of statutory homelessness data in Wales, along with perspectives on the opportunities and challenges in implementing a household/individual level data collection system. In addition to this survey, local authorities in Wales will each be sent a survey that will address current statutory homelessness data collection practices. Based on these surveys, a sample of local authorities will be contacted to explore their data collections in detail, and also to assess potential issues in moving to a household/individual level data collection and reporting system. Finally, a series of workshops are planned to discuss the options for a new data collection system, to include local authorities, Welsh Government, third sector organisations, and other stakeholders. The first of the workshops takes place on the 11th October in Cardiff.

Article by Dr Ian Thomas, WISERD.

Image from Flickr by Lars Plougmann. Licensed under Creative Commons.