Why have a consumer representative?
An effective consumer representative will bring the consumer perspective to consultation and decision-making just as effective industry or professional representatives bring theirs. A consumer representative may be a full member of an organisation’s board or committee, or may be someone specifically consulted on a specific issue or range of issues.
This section will help you locate consumer representatives who can give you the quality of advice you need, help you set up effective consultation, and use their wisdom to extend yours. It also talks about when to consult, how to consult and the costs of consultation.
How officials responsible for developing policy solutions and operational responses that work can develop a clear understanding of the elements of a successful solution and of the consequences of that decision, and any variations, for those groups represented.
Find out more about effective representation – see Consulting consumers.
Recruiting effective consumer representatives
Your ability to select effective consumer representatives depends on your preparation. You are more likely to be successful if you are crystal clear about what you want to know and what you expect to achieve in your consultation. In particular, establish
- terms of reference
- selection criteria
- terms of appointment, and
- provide full information to nominators.
Set the Terms of Reference
Below are typical questions you will need to address in the terms of reference for your project. Add questions which will apply specifically to your project.
Why consult consumers?
The purpose of consulting consumers is to add value and integrity to the decision-making process:
- consumers may be directly or indirectly receiving services from the industry
- consumers may be the purchasers of the product produced by the industry
- the matter under consideration may impact on, or have implications for, consumers.
You may accept the United Nations’ statement that consumers have
- the right to express consumer interests in the making and execution of government policy, and
- the responsibility to organise with other consumers to promote and protect consumer interests.
You may recognise that having the consumer perspective present will mean it is more likely that decisions made will offer solutions which work and policies which can be implemented and do achieve the results desired.
What do you want to know?
You may want to know
- how consumers define the problem
- what their response is to your proposal
- how their perspective compares with others
- what they see as the priorities in this situation/decision
- what solutions they offer
- how they predict their constituency will respond to any proposals developed during the meeting
In every case, you will want to know why and how they have arrived at their conclusions i.e. what experience, what knowledge, what perspective are they working from? How do they justify their advice?
What information/background material are you supplying?
The best consultation occurs when those consulted have read and understood the material which backgrounds the proposal being discussed or the problem being described. This allows everyone to start from the same point.
Identify the groups to be consulted
Weigh the involvement of consumer representatives alongside that of the government and the private sectors (industry and professionals) in terms of their role and in terms of the value they will bring to advice or decision-making.
In particular, note the proportion of professionals and technicians to consumers. If you wish your consultation to be effective then you do need to ensure that, where there is a group substantially in the minority, they are not the sole representative of that group and that they are experienced in similar forums.
How much time is there before you must have the answer?
There are two parts to the selection criteria for consumer representatives:
- their constituency (who they have the knowledge and experience to represent) and
- their level of knowledge and experience, their networks, and their meeting skills.
What is the mix of consumer constituencies you want represented?
The consumer constituency is usually the group(s) of people who use the service or are affected by the decisions which are/will be made. There is no set formula but ethnicity, gender, age, geographical location, and relative economic advantage/disadvantage are usually relevant factors.
For example: you may want to consult Maori, Pakeha, Pacific, and Asian New Zealanders who primarily span middle age but are able to reference to people in their early twenties, and have no physical handicaps. You may also wish to specifically include young and senior New Zealanders with physical handicaps, and mothers with very young children. To facilitate representation this wide you will probably need 3–5 consumer representatives.
What is the person specification?
You may simply apply the description of the qualities of a consumer representative (below) and add it as an appendix. You may also wish to indicate certain attributes which are particularly important.
Terms of appointment
Whether this is simply a short term advisory activity or a for longer term appointment, provide dates, likely time commitment and so on, wherever you can.
When and where will the meetings occur?
The timing and location of meetings should take into account the lives of all involved. While face-to-face meetings are essential for people to get to know each other, thereafter telephone conferences may be a viable option as long as meeting papers are received in time. Choosing a location closest for the majority is always worth consideration.
Consumer representatives may need to take leave without pay to attend meetings. This must be taken into consideration unless you prefer the most available consumer representative to the best. Where consumer representatives indicate they need to take leave without pay then wherever possible take action either to move the meeting to a non-work day, or to pay fees, or to develop another acceptable compromise.
Consumer representatives are as good as their knowledge of the people they represent. If they are unable to consult their constituency because of confidentiality agreements then not only are they isolated, but their ability to give value is also compromised.
Confidentiality agreements need to take into account the needs of all parties and respond to the need for the consumer representative (and probably others) to network and consult their constituency.
Provide full information to nominators
Contact nominating agencies
They can source nominations for you. The priority they give to this will depend on the relationship you have with them. It is a good idea to ring and talk to the person who will conduct the search to gain their commitment. Give them as much information as you can; they need to know exactly what kind of person you’re searching for.
In particular, provide a description of the relevant consumer constituency and be as specific as you can. Similarly, provide a copy of the Terms of Reference and Terms of Appointment. Often it is uncertainty about these matters which cause people to decline to be nominated or limits who will be asked to consider the possibility of nomination.
The Ministry recommends that you register with any of the following nominating agencies:
Qualities of an effective consumer representative
Cabinet has accepted the following description as reflecting the desirable qualities for consumer representatives. Note that the description of qualities is not designed to be used as a tick list. Instead, allow the statements to modify each other and give an overall description of the qualifications which an effective consumer representative needs for the role you have in mind.
Knowledge and experience requirements
- A track record of achievements for the community (they have taken an initiative(s) and seen it through to the end). The quality of the track record matters more than the length.
- Is respected for their integrity in the community they have worked in and will represent.
- Knows the realities of ordinary people’s lives (especially those who are disadvantaged), knows the issues, knows the community thought processes, how decisions are made, and knows the community’s wisdom and its ignorance, its breadth and its contradictions.
- Knows what’s practical/possible, and sensible/rational and realistic/probable in the community.
- Has broad community networks they consult regularly and is accessible to the community. Not someone who works alone.
- Demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of confidentiality.
- Able to appreciate the common good.
- Stable, and acts consistently.
- Understands group processes and can work constructively within them.
- Addresses issues from the perspective of the consumer.
- Has strong communication skills and will be assertive and persistent if necessary.
- Strategises effectively from a minority stance and finds solutions and common ground with others.
- Exercises good judgement.
- Excellent at developing and maintaining appropriate relationships
- Respects cultural differences
Every consumer representative must have consumer experience, strong communication skills, good networks, work well in a group, and exercise good judgement. When recommending someone as a consumer representative, be sure that these qualities are present.
Consumer representative fees and expenses
Cost can be a real barrier for consumer representatives. Fees should be paid on the basis of Cabinet Office Circular – Fees framework for members appointed to bodies in which the Crown has an interest(external link) . This Circular sets the range of fees that should be paid according to the level of responsibility held by the committee. This is particularly important when a consumer representative has to take annual leave or leave without pay to attend the meeting. Another alternative is to move the meeting day to a non-work day.
Travel expenses are usually paid by the committee if the distance travelled is more than 20-25 kms.
Communication costs can add up. Consumer representatives, in particular, may need to ask for reimbursement of costs incurred. If a consumer representative does not have their own computer then costs may include computer hardware and software. Even if they do have a computer, there are significant costs in printer cartridges and paper.
Use telephone services and meet the costs of tolls, or provide an 0800 number. It is simply a matter of identifying the actual costs and working things through with those concerned.