When regulating monopoly network companies, either by market sector or area, the Utility Regulator seeks to protect consumers by taking decisions on prices, investment priorities and targeted outcomes our service providers are expected to deliver. Consumer engagement is the means we ensure our decisions are relevant to consumers’ needs, in the absence of competitive market conditions. A partnership approach to consumer engagement has served the Utility Regulator well in recent major price controls, ensuring limited specialist skills are pooled across our regulated companies, the consumer representative (CCNI), parent department (DfI for NI Water and DfE for the energy network companies) and ourselves.
Building on regular consumer engagement and liaison with NI Water, DfI and the CCNI, our most recent price control for NI Water included some deep research into consumer needs by the Consumer Engagement Oversight Group (CEOG). The CEOG sought the views of householders and businesses on the aspects of water and wastewater services that mattered most to them to inform decisions and investment priorities for the PC15 price control period 2015 to 2021.
Undertaking consumer research every price control is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensuring the best outcomes for the consumer; continuous engagement is preferable. Such continuous engagement is a reality for NI Water and its consumers post-PC15 with an offshoot of the COEG meeting regularly to develop (i) new consumer measures and customer satisfaction surveys, which can also focus on emerging consumer issues throughout PC15 (ii) satisfaction surveys which can are directly comparable to other service providers both locally, nationally and internationally and (iii) an informed basis upon which the next deep consumer research survey is developed in time to inform the next price control of NI Water at PC21 (where experience indicates starting to plan for such research earlier supports better research).
The Consumer Measures / Customer Satisfaction Working Group (CM/SAT) is a partnership group of ourselves, the CCNI, NI Water and DfI which has already introduced new consumer measures for NI Water. CM/SAT has adopted new consumer measures which allow NI Water to bear down on the need for consumers to contact them repeatedly on the same issues. The group has also (i) replaced an out-dated consumer survey with new satisfaction surveys which focus on consumer experience, if contacting NI Water, alongside (ii) introducing a new consumers’ advocacy survey question on NI Water which allows direct comparison of NI Water against service providers locally, nationally and internationally.
 Connecting with consumers: a report on consumers’ priorities (2014) is the CEOG final report which built upon the research commissioned from Perceptive Insight Market Research (PIMR) / Queen’s University, Belfast, see PIMR’s Customer Consultation Research: Executive Summary (2013)