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Notes from the field of public involvement

Friday, 09 December 2005

Representing the Consumer Voice in Post and Energy

Some thoughts prompted by the Public Accounts Committee Report November 2005

The Public Accounts Committee published their report on Energywatch and Postwatch at the end of November: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmpubacc.htm which followed up the National Audit report on those bodies which came out in October (www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/03-04/03041076.pdf).

The committee issued a fairly combative press release and Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, got a chance to say on the Today programme how feebly the two bodies were performing. The press release had set the tone.

"The two bodies set up in 2000 to represent and advise consumers in the energy and postal markets, Energywatch and Postwatch, are performing feebly. Huge numbers of complaints, particularly relating to wrong energy bills and mail lost by the Royal Mail, continue to pour in. So, some five years after the creation of these well-funded, specialist consumer bodies, there is still a lot of public dissatisfaction with energy and postal services. Neither Energywatch nor Postwatch have got out there to find out more about consumer needs and difficulties, especially those of older people and low income families. Neither body knows how effective it is in helping consumers. And it can’t help that only a tiny proportion of the public have heard of the two bodies. Energywatch and Postwatch need to stop stuttering along and start firing on all cylinders. At the same time, they must look hard at how to cut their overhead costs which are unjustifiably escalating."

It is interesting how little consensus there is about consumer representative organisations in terms of how they should be organised, how much they should cost and how much influence they should have and how well-known they should be. They have after all been going a lot of them in one form or another since the middle of the last century. Indeed the witnesses and the committee had to sit there while the old Labour and consumer warhorse Alan Williams called for the re-establishment of consumer advice centres "Way, way back in history, when I was Consumer Minister, I set up 60 consumer advice centres around the country. They were all-purpose centres. Would it not be more logical? There are so many different consumer contacts, that the public have no knowledge of where they are, who they are, what is available. Would it not be logical in fact to pull them together into a single cohesive unit and be multi-purpose?"

Remember him? Remember CACs? No one could be certain even then whether he was Shirley Williams’ husband or brother. Answer - neither (except in that happy band - Old fraternal Labour) but definitely of that vintage and a ministerial presence in the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection - one of the least mourned entities in the Whitehall catacomb reserved for los departmentos disappearedos. The DPCP played a heroic role in keeping inflation below 30% in 196?? Whenever.

Back to the core accusation - ‘performing feebly’. But what is the answer to the question ‘ performing well’? Numbers of complaints can be a compliment - a sign that the organisation has a reputation for resolving them and an indicator that such committees are better known than the committee alleges. Also a 72% satisfaction level is not bad at all in my experience for an escalated complaint environment. So, are they as bad as the Committee asserts?

The snag is that no one knows for sure. Without a good definition of what effectiveness means, these committees are vulnerable to being beaten over their heads about their lack of clout and growing costs. They also risk being exiled out of London also in spite of their resorting to the classic arguments for London locations - variations on the usual pleas like needing to collect their wages in a sack every Friday from the Department of Trade in Victoria London SW. (Don’t tell anyone but the Consumer Council for Water is in Birmingham)

What would effectiveness look like? I trained the new representatives for Postwatch and this was the question we ended the sessions with. In retrospect a bad move since the sessions then ended on a note of uncertainty and confusion. What would effectiveness look like? No one knew and I could not tell them. Still couldn’t if it came to that and according the NAO report, nor can anyone else.

Yet surely it is possible. Designing a dashboard or balanced score card for these organisations would feed in four sorts of data

  1. Management information - costs including cost per closed case for the complaints taken against time to close. Internal measures about % meetings attended of the consumer representatives or similar
  2. Consumer satisfaction data - based on the sources of direct experience of the service provided for complaint resolution/ query answering;
  3. Stakeholder data - view of those dealing with the organisation - their industry and the civil servants; consumer organisations including Citizens Advice, Consumer Association and the advice networks; MPs even.
  4. Project Impact - all project would include their own measures of effectiveness and these would be assessed at the end or for continuing campaigns at agreed points prior to their conclusion.

The final point about effectiveness is the quality of their staff and of the consumer representatives themselves. A lot of work has taken place recently revamping recruitment and doing a lot more training very different to the old style ‘visiting the gas works’. This was called familiarisation and gave the industry hosts an good opportunity to get all the new consumer representatives well-pissed at lunch. Ah I can hear Alan Williams growing positively nostalgic.

A combined body which kept all these organisations under its wing would also give staff a career path and some choices which were wholly absent when each had its own staff. The quality and commitment of these people - released many of them from mainstream civil service departments (why?) - were variable and I am being quite kind. Once there they could never be shifted - where would they go? As far as quality of senior management is concerned, Allan Asher is considered by his peers as one of the leading consumer advocates in the world.

It is easy for the committee to be rude but they did acknowledge the achievements. ‘Feeble’ smacks a bit of headline grabbing but let us see what happens next and whether the organisations have been stung into action. The first step is get the Dept of Trade to facilitate the sharing of back office services eg common customer contact management software and then we will presumably be on the way to the combined consumer representative body.

Exciting times.

Colin Adamson | Send feedback