Notes from the field of public involvement

Monday, 20 February 2006

There Once Was an Ugly Duckling

The National Consumer Council used to host (somewhat reluctantly it's true) an annual Consumer Congress. Delegates would gather from all the consumer organisations anyone could think of and find a current address for. University halls of residence would be taken over and fire alarms set off in the dead of night. I need not go on I am sure.

The Consumer Camps

Those gathered together split into various camps. One grouping consisted of those who thought of themselves as consumer professionals and were distinguished to a degree by their skills and commitment but also by the fact they were in full-time employment. They were in full time jobs as researchers or policy analysts or whatever. The hub of this world was made up of two organisations - the NCC and the Consumers' Association now Which? Ltd. Both offspring of Michael Young, created in the 70's (NCC) and CA in the late 50's, these organisations always thought of themselves as the fountainhead of the consumer movement in the UK.

However the truth of it is that there were many organisations that could be called consumer that pre-dated them - the wonderfully titled Electrical Committee for or was it of Women to advise the Baldwin cabinet in the 30s on how to cope with the shock of the new. Most importantly after the war and the nationalisation of the energy industries, the Gas and Electricity Consumers' Councils were created. Accompanying them were the POUNCs and PATACs for the post and telephone. Rail users too had their own show.

Neither Fish nor Fowl

The delegates from these bodies were often ill at ease out of their own environments. They were the ugly ducklings - or to extend and mix the avian analogy- neither fish not fowl. These consumer representatives were appointed to their roles by a deeply mysterious and hidden, essentially political process and were seen as unhealthily close to their industries. This impression was in part fostered by their extreme defensiveness when those industries were attacked by other consumer bodies. Whose side were they on? The secretariats were civil servants seconded and then abandoned by their original Whitehall departments. A commitment to the consumer cause played no part in their recruitment nor did it seem to pre-occupy them unduly as they peacefully passed their days in small regional offices scattered through the land.

Neither representatives nor staff were seen as being full members of the consumer movement but as a thing apart doing a role that reflected the theory of introducing the consumer interest into the thinking of state monopolies otherwise undisturbed by the notion of the customer interest. There were occasional efforts to gather them more into the wider consumer fold but an element of condescension always inhibited close and lasting relationships. More specifically, it is always difficult to bring together centralised, research-focused organisations with dispersed decentralised bodies with strong local and sectoral pre-occupations. They are different animals.

Their role changed post-privatisation from mitigating the effects of monopoly to that of mitigating the effects of unbridled competition. Their recruitment processes are immeasurably more open and there is even training - unheard of until fairly recently. The staff seem to have perked up a bit. Now the DTI is proposing to create Consumers Incorporated out of 7 bodies representing the consumer interest across a range of markets. The proposal is to take 4 of them and put them into the organisation Consumer Voice.

God Bless All who Sail in Her - the Launch of SS Consumer Interest

The National Consumer Council will be there to welcome the new joiners aboard this new consumer supertanker. Size will bring the usual benefits - more of a career path for staff is one. The usual arguments about economies of scale and better management and best practice are being trotted out.

We will be sending in our views on this more formally later. Meantime I wanted to air a couple of concerns prompted by these institutional mergers.

No one on the Bridge

The first is whether the launch will make the position of captain of the new vessel any more interesting and attractive in future? Since the deaths of Michael Young and Sheila MacKechnie, the consumer world has been effectively leaderless. Many of those who worked in the consumer cause in the 50's and 60's are dead or retired and planning the next Consumers' Assocation 60's reunion party. It is understandable perhaps that after the sound and fury of the MacKechnie years that CA aka Which? Ltd opted for someone quieter as Director. However their silence says absence.


Will the new Consumer Voice be run as a branch office of the DTI and led by obliging apparatchiks eager to build their careers in the burgeoning bureaucracies of consumer regulation, representation and complaint handling? They will be looking forward to a larger budget to match the new combined resources, but those amongst them with any experience of the public sector will also know that one budget is easier to cut than many. Their new apparent security brings a new vulnerability. Their focus becomes their own survival with all eyes and energies on the departmental budget round and their standing within Whitehall.

The Necessary Opponent

In these circumstances, I begin to miss one of the attributes of the bodies outside the pale that we used to scorn - namely the presence of 'the enemy': the big bad businesses in the sector that the representatives engaged with. In centralising and professionalising the consumer representatives under the Whitehall umbrella, are we not losing the tension of an engagement with an opponent who is the sole pre-occupation of a particular body? The struggle between institutional capture ( for example, by an energy company or a sector of the financial services industry) and engagement without entrapment produced tension and energy. The existence of ‘the other' to challenge and if necessary oppose always gave the consumer movement an easily grasped reason for existence. Think MacKechnie and the financial services industry.

Link with the Unassimilated?

How will the new body link with the unassimilated? Those angry groups outside the process: the single issue rail commuter group; Surfers against Sewage? Fathers for Justice? These perhaps are the new Ugly Ducklings. Do they have the capacity to become the swans of the consumer future?

They do not have the skills or the stamina. They too need a leader. Where is she or he?

Nominations please for Leadership of the Consumer Voice Movement. Does Larry Whitty fit the bill? Was he your choice? (Lord (Larry) Whitty was previously General Secretary of the Labour Party and a junior minister at MAFF).100 words completing the sentence "I believe that (insert name) should be the next leader of the consumer movement because ..."

Colin Adamson | Send feedback