Friday 13 December 2019

Ordinary people have a place among the experts on boards

The input of the 'non-experts' in the National Consumer Agency was invaluable, writes Celia Larkin

BASH me if you want, but non-experts do have a place on State boards. I notoriously served on the board of the recently amalgamated National Consumer Agency (NCA).

My fellow board members were a motley crew. Heading it up was an exceedingly gentlemanly chairperson. He was aided and abetted by, among others, an expert economist, a legal eagle, the director of the National Adult Literacy Agency, the chairperson of the Competition Authority, an empathetic community activist with an astute political antenna, an earnest singleton who was a stickler for corporate governance, retailers, wholesalers, services providers and services receivers and, of course, the most notable 'expert' himself: Eddie Hobbs. The officials, or public servants, were whipped into line by the ultra-conservatively clad, imperturbable, posture-perfect, focused and driven CEO.

Some media commentators have bashed the agency and belittled the work it has done, but today a totally different consumer environment exists, thanks to the National Consumer Agency.

When it came into existence, the average person in the street was not aware of their rights, and a substantial number of businesses were either unaware of or indifferent to consumer rights. There was no incentive for a business to inform itself or disincentive for non-compliance with consumer law. Let's face it, before the NCA was set up, little was even written about consumer rights and consumer affairs. OK, there was the odd sensational story relating to product safety -- usually where someone had died as a result of a faulty appliance or poison in a food product -- but the consumer had no information on what to do or where to go when it came to the everyday complaints and difficulties they experienced.

Was the board value for money? That depends on how you measure value for money. The first major battle fought by the agency was the abolition of the Groceries Order, allowing discounts to be passed on to the consumer. It's hard to believe, but up until then it was illegal to pass on to consumers discounts from wholesalers received by retailers as a result of bulk buying.

Probably the best-known exercise was the publication of the shopping basket which opened people's eyes to the massive diversity in pricing in supermarkets and drove the supermarkets into a more price-competitive mode, which was of huge benefit to the consumer. In recent times, price transparency and awareness has been extended to the real cost of childcare and fees paid for professional services, such as doctors' and dentists' fees. A browse through the agency's website will give you a full list of the areas it covers, along with information on enforcement and prosecutions as a result of non-compliance by businesses.

In themselves, these exercises may not have been earth-shattering, but grouped together, they have changed the way consumers look at things, and indeed how service providers and retailers deal with consumers. There is no doubt the campaign for consumer awareness was a success. For the first time, people became aware of their rights under law, and more importantly, retailers and service providers could no longer pull the wool over the eyes of the less confident consumer and operate anti-consumer practices.

Like everything in life, things evolve. I agree that the time has come for the paring down of boards and the expense they incur. But we should not lose sight of the benefits these agencies provided. In our negative obsession about spending we are inclined to overlook the benefits of some of the so-called 'quangos'. It makes sense to amalgamate the NCA with the Competition Authority. But it should be noted that the substantive work of the agency and authority will be unchanged. The merged group, the new Consumer and Competition Authority, will operate under a members model rather than a board model, a far more cost-effective system.

To read some media reports, one would be forgiven for thinking the NCA and all it stood for had been abolished. Far from it. As recently as last week, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn was advocating the use of the NCA budget planner available on the NCA website. "I hope the National Consumer Agency's 'Back to School' budget planner will help parents plan and manage their spending," he said.

The helplines and website have been a resounding success, with 60,000 calls and one million hits to date.

The composition of boards has also been much debated, with the emphasis being on suitability of candidates and their expertise. My experience on boards, and in particular on the board of the NCA, has been that while the 'experts' certainly had a considerable amount to offer, those who may not have been 'experts' in consumer affairs, in the academic sense, had a knowledge, common sense and life 'expertise' acquired through their work in retail, health and safety and citizens' advice centres that was invaluable in shaping the content, form and structure adopted by the NCA in providing information to the public. By all means bash me if that makes you happy, but it would be wrong to overlook or underestimate the invaluable contribution these people made.

It would be a sad day if ordinary people were excluded from boards just because they did not have an academic qualification that deemed them an 'expert'. Having witnessed their input, I believe their presence was vital at the embryonic stage of the agency. The manner in which information is conveyed to people is certainly down to their personal experiences with the general public, coupled with a no-nonsense, straightforward, user-friendly approach to helplines and websites.

"Wise words come from the lips of people with understanding."

Proverbs of Solomon 10.13

Sunday Independent

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