What do Power Lists say about who really has power?

Love them or hate them but it’s hard to ignore them. There are lists for everything from the greatest films to the richest people and the housing world is no exception.

For the second year running, housing has two alternative lists. The Power Players Top 50 was first published by 24 Housing in 2012 and Paul Taylor compiled the Digital Power Players list in 2013. This year the magazine published both: the official list in April and the digital list in the latest (June) issue.

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The lists, and the differences between them, got me thinking about power and who has it in housing. Or rather who other people think has it, since the results are inevitably influenced by the way they are compiled.

In general terms, both lists are quite narrowly focussed on social housing with very limited room for other tenures. Both also take quite a narrow conception of who has power and influence. To quote three names that are not on either list, the Duke of Westminster is Britain’s biggest landowner, Tony Pidgley is probably our most influential housebuilder and Ralph Lee was the Channel 4 executive in charge of Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House. How much power over housing do they have between them?

Back with the lists themselves, Paul has already noted one big difference. The alternative list has far more women (21 and seven in the top 10) than the official one (12 and three). Does that simply reflect the proportion of top jobs held by men, the way that conventional views of power exclude women, their greater prominence in social media, or a reaction to their under-representation in the original voting, or maybe all of the above?

Perhaps connected to that, the other big difference I noticed was London. Half of the 50 names on the official list come organisations based in the capital (I’ve counted MPs as representing both Westminster and the region of their constituency) but the alternative list has only 11.

That has some interesting implications. First, Wales and English regions like the West Midlands, North West and Yorkshire and Humberside are much more prominent on the digital list. Have the internet and social media dispersed power and made location less relevant (in my own case I often write about things that happen in London but do it from 300 miles away)? Are they creating social networks in new ways or are networks just more powerful outside London?

Scotland is all but invisible on both lists with Martin Armstrong of Wheatley Group the only representative working north of the border (though David Orr tops the official list). Does that reflect Scotland’s different institutional arrangements or maybe the UK housing sector’s view of what will happen in the referendum? Or, given that neither list has anyone from Northern Ireland either, does it just reflect the ‘electorate’?

However, London’s downgrade could be about more than just geography. Most of the people from the capital on the original list have power in the most generally understood sense of the word: power to make decisions and tell other people what to do. From politics, there are six English government ministers and the shadow housing minister, the Welsh housing minister, the Mayor of London and his deputy, the Labour housing spokesman on the London Assembly and Islington’s James Murray. The list also includes the governor of the Bank of England and six chief executives of London-based organisations or housing associations.

But power can also be about setting the agenda and London is strongly represented on that basis through Alex Morton of the Downing Street Policy Unit, Julian Ashby and Matthew Bailes of the HCA, the head of Labour’s policy review Sir Michael Lyons and Terrie Alafat of the DCLG.

Contrast that with the alternative list. Politicians were excluded, which does skew the comparison. However, there are only 14 people on it who have power in the conventional sense as chief executives and only one of them is from London (Kate Davies). And they seem to owe their position less to their hierarchical power than to their willingness to engage with people on social media. As Shirley Ayres, who compiled the digital list with Paul Taylor, puts it on his blog:

‘Possibly the term power players is a bit of a misnomer in this context and a more appropriate term is super connectors. The housing sector is at an early stage of recognising the potential of social media to make new connections which are not limited by sector boundaries. It’s a potential for new collaborations, with the active involvement of customers in the development of new services.’

This more diffuse sense of power in the sense of influence can be seen first in the presence of far more bloggers and journalists (I think the latter were excluded from the original list). There was a particularly strong showing by people associated with the SHOUT and #CouncilHomeChat campaigns. And the inclusion of both Julia Unwin (who is on the official list too) and Kathleen Kelly from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that the connections between housing and poverty remain strong in people’s minds.

However, the next biggest difference is the presence of so many comms people and specialists in social media (many of whom don’t even work in housing) on the digital list. I counted at least 14 of them plus another two or three senior housing people who are also Housing Goes Digital enthusiasts, so that is getting on for a third of the top 50.

This is a similar proportion to last year and it may partly reflect the online electorate and the voting criteria (which included Klout and PeerIndex ratings) but I think it’s much more than that. It’s also about the growing number of comms professionals working in housing and the social networks they have built. This growth is a response partly to the rise of social media and partly to the challenge of welfare reform (and especially the bedroom tax and the universal credit). It’s hard to separate out one from the other since they have happened over the same period but both are having a disruptive effect on housing organisations and changing the relationship between them and their tenants.

Shirley argues that:

‘Becoming a social business often requires a cultural mindshift which goes beyond thinking that social media is just a communications channel. People increasingly expect that organisations will not just reach out but also listen to them. The nominations for power players represented a cross section of people who are building connected communities and and modelling how social technologies can creatively help housing associations build new networks.’

Things have changed and continue to change rapidly but what does this say about power and who has it in housing?

One thing that seems clear is that social media is changing and remaking power and social relations. The alternative list includes many relatively junior staff who have more ‘power’ than their bosses. Networked power could be displacing hierarchical power. However, the comms revolution in housing (and in other sectors) is not just a reaction to a changing world; it’s also a response to it by traditional organisations and a bid to maintain their power and spread their influence.

Social media is changing the nature of communications too of course. John Popham, who was second on the digital list, makes some important points in his blog about the shift away from old-style marketing messages:

‘Communications and marketing professionals are increasingly recognising that what people really want is not be sold official lines, but to be involved in conversations. That has always come naturally to me because of where I came from, working with and supporting community organisations. The disappointing thing, for me, is that, on the other side of the equation, community organisations, and those who work with them, have been relatively slow to realise, and take advantage of, the power of social media.’

I’d also inject a note of caution here about the sometimes blind assumption that social media democratises organisations. We need to think about how we remake those social relations. The traditional distinction between ‘landlord’ and ‘tenant’ sounds almost feudal when you think about it in terms of power so the search for alternative terminology is understandable. However, it’s very easy to slip into using language like ‘the business’ and ‘the customers’ without thinking about the implications of doing so.

Are we importing market values along with market language and what does that say about where power really lies in housing? Are we unwittingly confirming the ideological power of offstage actors when we communicate the message of  ‘welfare reform’?

Following on from that, the publication of ‘power’ lists should be time to reflect on what they mean for people who have little or no power. Rae Watson of TPAS, who appears on the digital list, notes on her blog that ‘with power comes responsibility’ and makes three pledges. The first two are about building comms networks. The third is to ‘help raise the voice of tenants and those are the frontline’.

The point is not having power or influence. It’s what you do with it that counts.

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7 Comments on “What do Power Lists say about who really has power?”

  1. johnpopham says:

    Fabulous, piece Jules, and I’m not just saying that because you quote me.

    I think this is the only substantive piece of writing I’ve seen that tries to make some correlation between the two lists and actually highlights what they have got to say about how power is shifting. Thank you for that.

  2. Paul Taylor says:

    Wonderful stuff Jules – thank you.

    I agree that the current focus of (both) lists is perhaps too limiting. As well as the examples you have given what place for the likes of Paul Routledge – founder of Lifestyle Tenant Referencing -a massive voice in PRS? I don’t judge anything by numbers but 15K Twitter followers means he probably does figure in debate even if many would wish him not to.

    There’s also virtually no linkage between housing and health in an era where the two have never have been so important.

    The geographic differences you note are very interesting. The other point I wanted to make (in the post you just blew out of the water!) is size. Most of the alternative players are from fairly medium sized or smaller HAs. Certainly the CEOs of smaller organisations wield disproportionate influence on social media.

    I’m not naive enough to think this represents a genuine power shift. But it does indicate a shift in who is making better use in sharing their message and being part of a social conversation.

  3. Popham’s comments re: how marketing has shifted away from selling ‘official lines’ and instead increasingly focuses on conversation reminded me of the arguments laid out by Daniel H. Pink in his book ‘To Sell Is Human’.

    Here, the idea is that we are ALL selling something – whether it is a product, our time, our support, etc. Unlike old methods of convincing someone that what you already have is something they need (regardless of whether it is or not) selling now is concerned with attunement (or empathy) with others, helping them see new possibilities, and an emphasis on SERVING them; is what I’m selling going to improve their lives?

    Those of power in social media, it seems, ‘sell’ this service: they engage in conversation, rather than selling a rigid idea, they expose new angles on stories – fresh approaches to old conundrums – and they work to increase the links and awareness between people and ideas; serving the ‘connectivity’ of others.

    The argument might not cover EVERYTHING that ‘super-connectors’ do, but it’s not a bad sales pitch all the same.

  4. benlowndes says:

    Interesting post Jules. Lists tend to spark debates and this time is no different. Really good piece.

  5. julesbirch says:

    Thanks for the comments, all.
    John, you reminded me of a few things I meant to add. The dividing line between the two is maybe more blurred than I made out because I think social media has also started to influence the official list (in my case definitely). I also wonder what % of people in housing use social media (thinking mainly of twitter) as there are plenty with lots of power who don’t at all (where are all the finance directors?).
    Agree on small and medium sized organisations, Paul. My mental map of who’s who in housing has definitely changed as a result of twitter. Are larger organisations less able to adapt? Or is it that they have more already invested in their corporate identity and a more top-down approach to communications (it’s not just the chief executives, the comms people also seem to be mostly from smaller landlords and organisations). A couple of people I nominated who do work for larger organisations didn’t make the list.
    Agree (but a bit uneasily) on your point, Neil because of what I was saying about market values. For me Twitter is partly about personal profile but I soon learned that it’s not about overt ‘selling’ (for example, only tweeting to promote things that I have written). I’m not sure that many organisations get this when it comes to their own twitter feed (the ones that do have an individual ‘personality’ in what they tweet, the ones that don’t just say how great they are).

  6. johnpopham says:

    It’s interesting that 5 of the top 8 in the Digital list are freelancers, one of the other 3 is the Director of a small company (Asif Choudry) and the other 2 are CEOs. I think this confirms the point that the connectors have more influence in the digital arena. It also perhaps says that we have more time, and it’s in our economic interests, to be visible on social media, than those who might be bogged down in the day-to-day of the office. Those, like Nick Atkin and Michelle Reid, who are able to lift their sights beyond the daily grind and reach out to those outside the usual suspects are getting the recognition they deserve for such efforts.

    I think it is true that it is easier for a small organisation to open up and be human than a large one, where there is always the temptation to deal with the issue of size by locking everything down and rallying people around a single message. It is not impossible though. Just have a look at the work that Tom Riordan has initiated as the social CEO of Leeds City Council, which is being led by Phil Jewitt http://trulysocial.wordpress.com/. Not a housing organisation, I know, although it is a big social landlord, but it is an example that big organisation can do this.


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