How chairpersons help consumer representatives to be effective
The basis for these guidelines is research completed by Consumer Protection looking at how to make consumer representation effective.
How important is the chairperson?
The style of management adopted by the chairperson is pivotal to the consumer representatives’ effectiveness. Consumer representatives time and again talk about the difficult time they often have at meetings. Overall, they identify the outcome of their difficulties as a strong sense of isolation within the group. They attribute this feeling to being in the minority, having a vast and diverse constituency, the requirements of tight confidentiality agreements, the effects of conflict, and the monetary costs.
Consumer representatives also report that a chairperson with a positive and participative style of group management can enable them to be effective.
Positive and participative chairperson
Consumer representatives have identified that they can be most effective where the chairperson has established communication rules which make it clear that all members of the group are expected to
- treat each other courteously at all times
- treat every member and their ideas seriously
- acknowledge that where a member is the only representative of a large constituency, they may need to speak more often in the interests of natural justice
- make decisions as a whole group working together and reaching agreement.
- not bring personal and professional differences into the group unless it is entirely appropriate
- maintain their expertise as an advisor and representative by networking with their constituency within the bounds of the confidentiality agreement.
And in addition the chairperson:
- greets everyone by name and talks to all members informally during the break
- grants every member the opportunity to address each issue
- applies the rules of natural justice
- makes it clear to all members precisely what is confidential and what can be talked about and suggests how they might do that
- is involved in decisions about the payment of expenses
- makes sure everyone has access to the same information. This may mean that additional information is made available to those who are not part of the industry
- deliberately builds cohesion and trust within the group
- is open-minded and fosters respect within the group
- deals immediately and effectively with conflict, difficult situations, and difficult people.
Role of Chairperson
A chairperson’s primary role is to preside over meetings and manage the group. The chairperson is pivotal in setting the tone and influencing the way in which the group works together. S/he is also a member of the group in their own right. In terms of their role as presiding officer, legal precedent states that the chairperson has:
- a duty to see that s/he only presides over meetings which are properly convened, where a quorum is present, and where proceedings are conducted in accordance with any standing orders
- the responsibility to control the meeting, and
- the responsibility to ensure that s/he does not control the content of the meeting or the content of decisions made. The chairperson cannot overrule or disregard the opinion of members. Indeed, there is a strong precedent that the chairperson must be impartial, particularly in their rulings, and using the Chair to promote their view over others can be regarded as an abuse of office.
Problems encountered by consumer representatives
Just as there are a number of constituencies in, for example, medicine (pharmacists, surgeons, physicians, GPs, nurses, radiologists, hospital administrators) or in construction (building owners, carpenters, concrete distributors, scaffolding contractors, electricians) so there are many constituencies for consumers (Māori women/men, NZ-born Pacific people, people with low incomes, tenants, people with diabetes, older people and so on.)
As the Chairperson, knowing which constituencies are represented through the consumer representatives and which are not will help you recognise
- when you may need to consult consumers beyond those represented because the matter impacts on them too, and
- the range of people the consumer representative needs to be in touch with.
Principle of representation
The purpose of having mixed representation on a body is to improve decision-making and increase the likelihood that decisions made do offer solutions which work, and policies which can be implemented, and do achieve the improvements intended.
Each representative adds value to the decision-making process because they contribute the knowledge, experience, interests, and perspectives of their constituency, and the judgement they have developed working with their constituency.
Many boards, advisory bodies, departmental working parties, and committees which include consumer representation have one or two consumer representatives with 5-10 industry and/or professional representatives. This significant imbalance of numbers can cause problems and a sense of isolation for consumer representatives. They find that:
- theirs is always the different perspective, the one which has to be justified, and which is seen as a challenge by other members, and
- as an individual member, they need to speak more frequently than any other because if they don’t speak, the consumer perspective is not heard.
This can annoy other members and officials especially when the consumer view is challenging, even though the consumer representative is simply doing their job.
As Chairperson you can validate there being a different view which needs to be taken into account, and explain any need to speak more frequently to the members of the group and insist on at least their toleration.
Principle of natural justice
Natural justice is the main administrative law principle a chairperson needs to keep in mind. In procedural terms, natural justice requires members to declare conflicts of interest and withdraw from debate and decision-making on that matter.
Natural justice also requires a decision-maker to not only act without bias and in good faith but also to ensure that any person whose interests will be affected by that decision is granted a hearing and an opportunity to rebut contrary arguments.
Members of government bodies are now routinely asked to sign confidentiality agreements. This in itself is not a problem. There are good and sound reasons why confidentiality is required. The problem for consumer representatives comes when confidentiality clauses entirely prevent them from consulting their constituency.
The value that consumer representatives bring is their knowledge of the people they represent (especially their daily lives and opinions) and their ability to predict how they will respond. If they are unable to consult their constituency then they become isolated from them and their ability to give value is progressively compromised.
As chairperson you can often ameliorate potential conflict between the need for confidentiality and the need for consumer representatives to consult. For example, consumer representatives have reported that they found it enormously helpful when a chairperson spent a few minutes at the end of each meeting or item discussing exactly what must be confidential and what can be said publicly.
Consumer representatives almost never have access to funding and resources which they can use at no cost to them. This can mean that one individual can end up bearing the costs of a committee getting the advice they need. As chairperson you can:
- use, as a guide to making payments, the Cabinet Office Circular– Fees framework for members appointed to bodies in which the Crown has an interest
- choose meeting days that don’t cause consumer representatives to take leave without pay and effectively suffer loss of income, or pay fees, or hold meetings at other times
- consider the costs of e-mail which can be considerable for a consumer representative particularly if you are sending large files which need to be printed. Either refund costs or, where time is not a factor, use couriers, ordinary mail, and the telephone instead
- suggest flexibility to officials where meetings in Wellington mean days of longer than 12 hours because the consumer representative lives at a distance from the airport and some distance from Wellington. It may be no more expensive to bring in such a person the night before on a cheaper flight and provide a night in a hotel
- use teleconferencing or videoconferencing, it can be very efficient once people know each other.
Consumer representatives find conflict between professionals very difficult. Often the presence of conflict can mean a power game is continually being played at the table. So ideas may be discounted or there may be a refusal to agree for reasons which are not logical. As Chairperson you can intervene in conflict quickly and ameliorate its effects on decision-making.
Qualities of an effective consumer representative
Cabinet has accepted a description of the qualities of an effective consumer representative.
See Qualities of an effective consumer representative for the description.