How can the consumer voice be better heard in the regulation of essential services?

In a week’s time, in my capacity as Chair of the Essential Services Access Network (ESAN), I will be chairing a major conference to be held at the BT Tower. The title of the event is “How can the consumer voice be better heard in the regulation of essential services?” and we will be looking mainly at the water, energy, communications, financial services, and transport sectors.

We have a really impressive line-up of 18 speakers and will be producing a report of the event. In the meanwhile, we have commissioned a background paper for the conference from independent consultant Zoe McLeod. I’m really pleased with this and you can access it here.

The paper reviews different models for consumer representation and different methodologies for engaging with consumers. The conclusion is as follows:

“In terms of the consumer voice models, at a high level, both the panel approach and the stand-­‐alone consumer watchdog have their strengths and weaknesses, depending on the type of market, the sector, and the wider consumer landscape. In all cases, where potential limitations are identified, care must be taken to mitigate concerns. A consumer voice body within the regulated company can act as a good complement to existing approaches. It does not require legislation or public funding, highlighting a real opportunity for developments of this kind.

Given that each consumer representation model has its strengths and limitations, there may be a case for encouraging elements of all three approaches where resources permit. Arguably this situation has existed in the water sector with a version of the consumer voice within the regulator (Ofwat’s Expert Advisory Group), a stand-­‐alone consumer voice outside the regulator (CCWater) and consumer voices within the regulated companies (Customer Challenge Groups). Where there are two or more models of representation, it is important for there to be a clear understanding of the different roles of the different bodies and collaborative working between them. These are issues for discussion at the event.

Similarly with the use of different research methodologies, there is ‘no one sized fits all’ approach. While behavioural insights and related randomised controlled trials are considered a ‘gold standard’ technique in terms of providing robust quantitative data that allows measurement of actual consumer behaviour and to evaluate the impact of interventions, their use is not always practical, ethical or appropriate. BIs are important, but only part of the picture, particularly for complex issues such as tackling climate change or resilience. Traditional system-­‐wide approaches to policy solutions are still needed.

Decision makers are increasingly recognising the importance of capturing the diversity of consumer voices, including those who are in vulnerable circumstances. While the UKRN has identified four principles of effective engagement many regulators still have a way to go to consistently meet this good practice. All parties (regulators, governments, and industry among them) need to be more flexible in how they engage with consumer bodies, recognising their relatively limited resources, and at times limited sectoral knowledge. This involves taking steps to actively build capacity among the consumer sector, by using a wide range of techniques, including embracing digital opportunities, to support engagement and strengthen the consumer voice in decision-­‐making.

The Essential Services Access Network (ESAN) is strongly in favour of wider knowledge sharing and experimental use of different consumer representation models and different consumer research methodologies. We are of the view that this would be good for consumers, regulators and companies. We hope that this background paper, the conference that it supports, and the final report from the conference will all assist in promoting such information exchange and experimentation. We stand ready to work with all relevant stakeholders to advance this progressive agenda.”


  • Natalie

    Dear Mr. Darlington,

    Thank you for posting the ESAN conclusion and associated background paper. I believe this is an important issue that should be addressed with the care and concern that you and your speakers clearly maintain for the customers of various essential services.

    For future conferences, however, you may wish to consider using the term “customer” in place of “consumer”. The word “consumer” is a byproduct of the 20th Century consumerism movement intended to encourage people to buy more than they need to “promote economic growth”, but which has instead encouraged our current ecological crisis. According to the book, “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (page 15, Penguin Books, New York, 1992) the dictionary definition of “consumer” is to “use up, waste, destroy, and squander”. Although this may sound like a small point as our global society has become used to calling people consumers, there are careful shoppers who bristle at the term “consumer” because they understand the true meaning of the word and the origin of its use to promote overconsumption through “consumerism”.

    Thank you for your consideration of my comment.

  • Roger Darlington

    I understand the point you are making, Natalie. However, simply using a different term does not really address the issue of excessive purchase or use of products and services when resources and incomes are limited.

    In fact, different terms tend to be used in different market sectors: consumers, customers, clients, passengers, end users. Outside of a market context, we usually deploy terms like citizens or users.

    All of these terms essentially are making a distinction between the provider of a product or service and the user of that product or service.


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