Increasingly the need to listen to the voices of the public is being seen as an essential component of good policy making and decision making on essential public services (like water, energy and telecommunications). This is based on the assumption that this type of engagement will establish a mutually beneficial relationship between a service provider and their users and build a ‘social licence to operate’ for the provider.
Despite this, there remains a hesitancy within technically complex infrastructure sectors (like the energy and water sectors) to extend opportunities for the public to contribute to policy and business planning beyond traditional business consultation issues: like willingness to pay; customer satisfaction; and options for information provision.
Further investigation on this suggests that part of this reluctance stems from an uncertainty about whether average members of the public are interested in and/or able to effectively engage with the wider issues that underpin strategic planning and policy decisions in these areas. In parallel, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, there also remain concerns from some sectors about whether the public actually will be able to add anything useful and relevant to the issues being considered by policy-makers.
One of the organisations that is working to ensure that consumer voices are represented within these types of industry contexts is the Consumer Futures Unit (part of Citizens Advice Scotland with a specific responsibility for representing the voice of consumers within the regulated industries of energy, water and post). Over the past few years they have been increasingly interested in developing their own understanding of how consumer voices can best be brought into the heart of policy and planning within these sectors, and specifically when deliberative methods can be best be used to inform advocacy on behalf of consumers.
In response to this, the Consumer Futures Unit (CFU) commissioned Involve, in partnership with Ipsos MORI, to trial 3 different deliberative methods to explore consumers’ relationship to the water environment in Scotland to inform their advocacy role within the next strategic pricing review process for the industry. 1 Their specific research questions were:
How engaged are consumers in matters related to water and the environment?
Do consumers think there should there be similar service standards across urban and rural areas and if so, to what degree?
What we did
5 engagement events were held across Scotland in March 2017 to explore the policy questions outlined above – 2 deliberative Focus Groups (Inverness and Glasgow), 2 full day Structured Dialogue workshops (Inverness and Glasgow) and a 1 day Citizens’ Assembly (with participants drawn from a 1 ½ hour travel time from Edinburgh to give a mix of urban and rural perspectives). Together these involved 132 people in 22 hours of deliberation on the topic. Each group was recruited to be a representative ‘mini-public’.2
The research found that participants placed a high value on, and were reasonably engaged with, water in the environment.
- Participants displayed a clear sense of pride in what they saw as the high quality and abundance of Scotland’s water resource compared with that elsewhere in both the UK and internationally.
- Participants were able to cite numerous benefits of water in the environment for Scotland, including benefits for the population’s health and wellbeing, for recreation and tourism, and for industry and the economy. Economic benefits received particular attention, not least as pertaining to Scotland’s renewable energy industry.
- Despite placing a high value on water in the environment, participants tended to say that the water system and water and waste water services were not something to which they gave a great deal, if any, thought.
- Almost all participants were satisfied with the quality of their drinking water. They generally appeared impressed by the rigour of the water treatment processes. A range of other possible threats to water quality were spontaneously cited. These ranged from household sources of contamination, such as the disposal of non-soluble items down toilets and sinks; to wider and varied commercial sources, including cosmetic products containing micro beads, different forms of pollution and fracking.
In terms of other measures of how participants’ related to the water environment on a day-to-day basis, there was considerable variation in the extent to which they reflected on their level of water consumption. Variation was also evident in awareness and understanding of water charging mechanisms. While most participants knew they paid for their water supply and waste water collection via their Council Tax bill, a sizable minority – including 20% of those who took part in the focus groups and dialogues – did not. When they were informed as to the average amount paid per household (£351), they tended to comment that this was lower than they had expected and “good value” in relation the standard of service provided.
Participants commonly expressed a view that individuals should be more engaged in, and take greater responsibility for, protecting the water environment. At the same time, they commonly suggested that the Scottish Government and Scottish Water must take the lead in encouraging more responsible behaviour; in particular, through the provision of consumer information on household sources of contamination and the importance of conserving water.
The final stages of the workshops involved gaining an understanding of consumers’ priorities, and preferred approaches, to achieving a sustainable balance between maintaining the quality of Scotland’s water environment and the parallel need to deliver a high quality water service for consumers. In the more deliberative workshops greater importance was attached to developing new, more environmentally friendly ways of processing water and to alternative forms of energy production.
On the second thematic question, the research first considered overall levels of satisfaction with water and waste water collection services, and perceptions of Scottish Water’s service standards. Participants consistently expressed high levels of satisfaction with water and waste collection services and standards overall.
There was a high level of support for having similar services standards and guarantees across urban and rural settings. Participants often commented that people in different areas paid the same amount for their water and waste water services and thus should be provided with the same standard of service in return. Significantly, this perspective was as common among those who lived in large towns and cities as among those from more rural areas such as Inverness-shire.
Overall the research demonstrated that all of the methods used to consult with consumers were able to effectively address the policy research question and provide the CFU with clear insight into consumers’ priorities, concerns and expectations of service from the water sector and in relation to the wider water environment. It also clearly showed that there is added value for policy and decision makers in using a deliberative approach to engaging with consumers on complex and remote subjects in order to give people the opportunity to learn about the issues and develop informed opinions through dialogue. This led to the outputs produced by the more deliberative methods being valued by the CFU for the level of insight they gave into the reasons behind consumers’ preferences and priorities.
To find out more about the findings see:
- The CFU Insight Report - Untapped Potential: Consumer views on water policy
- The full Project Report
- 1. This public engagement was carried out on a live policy issue as part of a wider CFU research project that sought to establish ‘Which deliberative methods are most effective at identifying and understanding consumer preferences, motivations and priorities within the regulated industries?’
- 2. Participants were recruited to join the deliberations through a process of random recruitment designed to create, as far as possible within the small group size, a broadly representative sample of the Scottish public. “The principle here is that everyone affected by the topic in question has an equal chance of being selected, and this underpins the legitimacy of the process. Participants are typically selected through stratified random sampling, so that a range of demographic characteristics from the broader population are adequately represented –e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, disability, income, geography, education, religion, and so on.” Escobar, O & Elstub, S. (2017) Forms of Mini-publics: An introduction to Deliberative Innovations in Democratic Practice. New Democracy Foundation. https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/research/research-notes/399-forms-of-mini-publics