Digital Regulation Platform
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Introduction to digital consumer rights: consumer consultation

01.06.2020

Representation as a basic consumer right


Source: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng (drawing by Akinoro Oishi).

One of the consumer rights that can be said to underlie all the rest, or to be central to it, is that of representation. When making decisions, regulators are supposed to strike balances among the interests of different stakeholder groups. While some regulators have a special mandate to uphold the interests of consumers, they also have duties towards the industry that they regulate. Consumer representatives, by contrast, are dedicated to putting forward policies that they believe (based on research and expertise) will best serve consumers.

Of course, no stakeholder group can expect regulators to do everything they ask for. But regulators do generally have duties to consult all stakeholder groups, including consumer representatives; to take seriously all views expressed; and to give reasoned explanations of their decisions, wherever possible including feedback to commenters whose suggestions have not been adopted. Commonly, industry lobbyists are far better funded, more numerous and have better access to regulators than their consumer counterparts, so regulators may need to listen harder and offer support to consumer representatives in order to ensure they get a fair hearing.

Consultation is often focused on specific policy issues, on which documents have been published explaining a regulator’s options and their perceived advantages and disadvantages. The box below shows the principles that the United Kingdom regulator, Ofcom, applies to such consultations. Those provisions which are especially valuable for consumer representatives are shown in bold.

How Ofcom’s seven consultation principles help consumer representatives

Ofcom has seven principles that it follows for every public written consultation:

Before the consultation

1. Wherever possible, we will hold informal talks with people and organizations before announcing a big consultation, to find out whether we are thinking along the right lines. If we do not have enough time to do this, we will hold an open meeting to explain our proposals, shortly after announcing the consultation.

During the consultation

2. We will be clear about whom we are consulting, why, on what questions and for how long.

3. We will make the consultation document as short and simple as possible, with a summary of no more than two pages. We will try to make it as easy as possible for people to give us a written response. If the consultation is complicated, we may provide a short Plain English guide, to help smaller organizations or individuals who would not otherwise be able to spare the time to share their views.

4. We will consult for up to ten weeks, depending on the potential impact of our proposals.

5. A person within Ofcom will be in charge of making sure we follow our own guidelines and aim to reach the largest possible number of people and organisations who may be interested in the outcome of our decisions. Ofcom’s Consultation Champion is the main person to contact if you have views on the way we run our consultations.

6. If we are not able to follow any of these seven principles, we will explain why.

After the consultation

7. We think it is important that everyone who is interested in an issue can see other people’s views, so we usually publish all the responses on our website as soon as we receive them. After the consultation, we will make our decisions and publish a statement explaining what we are going to do, and why, showing how respondents’ views helped to shape these decisions.

Source: Adapted from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/.

The box below summarizes recommendations made in 2015 by a consumer-oriented working group (convened by Ofcom’s Commmunications Consumer Panel) on further improving Ofcom’s consultation procedures from a consumer stakeholder viewpoint.

When planning consultations

  • Try to give consultations a meaningful, plain English title.
  • Try to use case studies and illustrative scenarios more in consultation documents.
  • Highlight in the consultation the role that informal input has played in the development of the proposed policy.
  • Where appropriate, provide a consumer impact statement – not only who and how many people may be affected, but also the severity of impact and/or a summary drawing out the consumer implications.
  • Ensure tight summaries.
  • Include a summary page of consultation questions.
  • Provide plain English/easy read summaries when appropriate.
  • Consider using video introductions/summaries of the consultation online when appropriate.
  • Consider the use of graphics/infographics to bring the consultation issue to life.
  • Consider the impact of holiday periods on respondents.
  • Provide contact details for a named individual contact for each consultation.
  • Utilize internal lists of stakeholders and maintain a list of respondents for central collation.
  • Undertake stakeholder mapping – whose voices are least likely to be heard?
  • Raise potential respondents’ awareness of the ability to submit responses in alternative formats, e.g. audio and video submissions.
  • Make clear that respondents do not need to respond to all the questions in the consultation – it can just be a short response on one point.
  • Make clear that joint responses are allowed.
  • Think about greater use of social media – especially to engage younger people – using hashtags to raise debate (but recognizing social media’s limitations).
  • Target intended parties – utilize their networks.
  • Provide links to any additional events/videos/consultation tools on the main landing page for the consultation.
  • If planning stakeholder events, consider what events are being held by other stakeholders that might be relevant to speak at.
  • Give respondents the choice to opt in/out of further email contact.

During consultations

  • Post any event presentations online on the consultation landing page to inform people’s consideration of the issues.
  • Post videos of stakeholder events online to inform people’s consideration of issues and responses.
  • Undertake stakeholder mapping – who is responding and who isn’t?
  • Aggregate responses – make it easier for respondents to see what other types of people have said by tagging where possible.
  • Remind people of the closing date.
  • Acknowledge responses with an email message including next steps/timeline.
  • Treat feedback given at roundtable events/evidence sessions as formal input.
  • Post responses online as they arrive.

After consultations

  • If there is going to be a delay in publishing a statement, let respondents know.
  • Update and feedback to stakeholders re outcome and tell them when the statement has been published.
  • Highlight in the statement where responses have made a difference to the final statement/policy – namecheck organizations’ input.

Source: Adapted (with permission) from internal document of the U.K. Communications Consumer Panel – 2015 Consultations Review Working Group.

Structures for consumer consultation

Consultation of consumer interests can also be built in to the regulator’s structure, sometimes by having governing body members with duties to represent specific stakeholder types, including consumers, and sometimes through various committees and forums. Countries with notable structures for consumer representation and consultation include Malaysia and Australia – these are briefly described below. Nigeria’s Telecommunications Consumer Parliament, set up in 2003 by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), is an interesting example which is discussed more fully in the next section.

The Consumer Forum of Malaysia (CFM) was set up by the regulator in 2001, as a separate body with membership from both providers and consumer bodies in the sector. Its coregulatory status fosters the development of, and adherence to, industry codes of practice for consumer empowerment and protection. This arrangement permits it to be well resourced and to produce a range of useful materials for consumer support, as well as handling dispute resolution.

In Australia, the sector supports several relevant bodies, including:

Nigeria’s Telecom Consumer Parliament

Source: http://consumer.ncc.gov.ng/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/91st-COP-in-Mangu-Jos-2018.docx

The box below reproduces general information about the Telecom Consumer Parliament (TCP) as provided by the NCC on its website. The Consumer Affairs Bureau outreach pages further clarify that the TCP is just one element in NCC’s consumer outreach programme, alongside more frequent consumer outreach events held in cities and consumer town hall meetings held in rural locations. Under the overall direction of senior NCC management, operator personnel have to answer questions from the floor. Instant resolution of complaints has been a high point of sessions. Consumer representative groups have sprung up which are aware of consumer rights and ask well-targeted questions (Enyia 2018).

FAQ on NCC’s Telecom Consumer Parliament

What is Telecom Consumer Parliament?

The Telecoms Consumer Parliament serves as a platform for consumer education and protection, as well as an avenue for telecom consumers to present their issues and problems directly to the operators for resolution. It is a forum convened by NCC, industry regulator which draws participants from operating companies, consumers and officials of the Commission. The proceedings are usually televised in national media. It features civil society groups, consumer rights groups and members of the mass media.

Are all issues raised at the Telecom Consumer Parliament resolved on the spot?

Some of the issues raised are resolved depending on their nature during the programme. Others are resolved after the programme. To ensure that such issues are resolved, NCC formally communicates those concerns to the operators for resolution with definite time frames. The commission follows up to ensure amicable resolutions.

Where and when is it held?

The Telecoms Consumer Parliament is held at a designated city or town within a geo-political zone in Nigeria once every month. There are six geo-political zones in the country. Detailed programme of event is usually announced through the print and electronic media ahead of time to galvanise stakeholders’ attendance.

Is admission to the Telecoms Consumer Parliament free to every citizen?

Yes, it is free. Consumer information and education publications are also distributed at the forum free of charge to inform and educate consumers on salient consumer issues in the telecommunication industry.

When will the Telecom Consumer Parliament be held in my location so that I can have the opportunity to present my complaint?

The Telecoms Consumer Parliament rotates among the six geo-political zones. However you don’t have to wait for the Telecoms Consumer Parliament to lodge a complaint. You can always make your complaint through the toll free number, e-mail or in person at the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the Nigerian Communications Commission.

Source: http://consumer.ncc.gov.ng/faq/general-consumer-enquiries/.

Overall, the TCP has been an interesting and constructive undertaking, but the declining frequency of its meetings, mentioned above, shows that it may by now be past its heyday. Any parallel initiative in other countries can learn from this Nigerian experience. In particular, a range of outreach, consultation, and intervention mechanisms is needed if the regulator is to be successful in reaching a reasonable proportion of consumers.

References

Enyia, Jacob Otu. 2018. Telecommunications Law and Practice in Nigeria: Perspectives on Consumer Protection. Lagos: Malthouse Press. https://www.ebooks.com/en-uk/book/209818251/telecommunications-law-and-practice-in-nigeria/jacob-otu-enyia/?_c=1.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union). 2017. Report on Question 6/1: Consumer Information, Protection and Rights: Laws, Regulation, Economic Bases, Consumer Networks. Geneva: ITU. https://www.itu.int/pub/publications.aspx?lang=en&parent=D-STG-SG01.06.3-2017.

Onyeajuwa, Martha. 2016. Assessment of Ordinary Consumer Representation in Liberalised Mobile Telecommunications Markets: A Case Study of Nigeria. PhD thesis. London: University of Westminster. https://westminsterresearch.westminster.ac.uk/download/4da11634c607fff3eeb176137d369b24ee415f72a05cb2c55ff8a6bee46eb09c/1518143/Onyeajuwa_Martha_Kanene_thesis.pdf.

Last updated on: 28.08.2020