Reflections on the year

Bolting it down and banking it

Elisabeth DaviesWhen do you move on? If you’re aiming to bring about a change, and improvement for consumers, when is your job done? Is it ever done? When can you consider a piece of work finished?

These are just some of the questions I’ve been particularly considering over the last week or so. Every December the Consumer Panel holds a strategy and planning day.  Whilst the focus is on planning our work programme for next year, we inevitably spend a healthy amount of time reflecting on the year that’s been and rightly questioning our impact.

It seems particularly significant this year – or maybe that’s something I say every year – but from the Panel’s perspective there’s a clear sense of change.  The outcome of the Simplification Review, new Chairs at the LSB and the OLC, new Panel members.  The question we’re considering is how should we respond to this change?

I’ve put this question to a number of our stakeholders and critical friends and the responses have been as insightful as they have been varied.  This goes to the heart of the type of organisation we are and the type of organisation we want to be.  It also raises questions of perception and how others see us.  There should be no surprises here – a Triennial Review and a Simplification Review in the last two years, combined with a sector that is hardly backwards in coming forwards.  So we have the advantage of being pretty clear about what people think we’re doing well and where they’re less than impressed.

So what does this mean for our future focus? Do we carry on shining the sometimes harsh spotlight on the sector – through the likes of the Consumer Impact Report – or do we offer up the solutions and resources to bring about the improvements we so passionately want to see?  Have we spread ourselves too thinly in the past?  I’m always convinced this is one of the biggest risks facing any consumer organisation because there’s no shortage of things to do and issues to raise and, if we don’t do it, who will?

And then there’s the issue of the ‘unfinished business’.  Or as one stakeholder put it “make sure you bolt it down and bank it before you move on”.  So the coming year could see the Panel focusing on areas of outstanding work rather than picking up new projects.

Two meetings from the last couple of weeks have had a further impact on my thinking and both have involved working across sectors and other markets.

Our joint meeting with UCL on the future of Ombudsman schemes turned out to be every bit as thought provoking as I thought: more interest than I was expecting in the single portal idea – hide the inevitable complexity of the redress system behind a simpler single point of entry – but less flag waving for the uniqueness of the Ombudsman system when compared to other forms of redress – a real surprise for a self-confessed fan like me of Ombudsman schemes.

The following day I brought together representatives from the other Consumer Panels – communications, financial services, civil aviation and food standards.  This has been a longstanding personal commitment of mine with common sense telling me that there must be opportunities for closer working.  Consumers are not unique to each of these sectors, nor is how they behave nor the choices they make, so the onus should be on us to ensure we share learning, avoid duplication and look for consistency.  These cross sectoral approaches seem all the more important in the light of the wider changes happening across the consumer landscape and the potential gaps that might be exposed.  But where should they fit into our future priorities?

Thankfully the answers to these questions will be decided in the new year with the benefit of a Christmas break, a fresh perspective and full input from the rest of the Consumer Panel.  I personally remain convinced that there is no inconsistency in continuing to hold the regulatory system to account on behalf of consumers – you can expect our third Consumer Impact Report this year – whilst offering more collaborative opportunities with the regulators and professional bodies to address the very real challenges they face.  Our starting and finishing point as ever will be the consumer outcomes that the Legal Services Act was designed to introduce and, as with previous work programmes, I’m very open to the thoughts of others.  So if you have any thoughts on this over the Christmas period your ideas will always be welcome…