Being a consumer representative
Includes roles and responsibilities, interests and conflicts of interest, being effective in meetings, networking and the Consumer Representative Network.
Roles and responsibilities of an effective consumer representative
The major function of a consumer representative is to bring the consumer perspective to all decision-making and to work with the other members of the body to build solutions and policies which work and which do address the problems identified. This is done by:
- presenting and arguing the consumer’s point of view
- developing alternative solutions or compromises which enable consumer needs to be met
- contributing to the overall role and direction of the board or committee.
As a consumer representative you will represent one or more constituencies. It is your job to describe the relevant parts of those consumers’ lives and be able to predict their response to any proposal when there is time to actually contact them. You are their voice. You are not there to represent yourself.
You must stay in touch with any constituency you are representing all the time. Any knowledge that is more than two years old is too old for adequate representation. Tell them what is happening, and what you are saying and suggesting.
A consumer constituency may be of any size or kind. For example
- people with Type B diabetes
- people who have mains gas supply
- people living near the airport
- parents with low incomes
- new migrants.
You will also need to know who to contact when you don’t have time to consult your constituency. Maintaining an active network with other consumer representatives is important.
Your responsibilities as a board member
As a consumer representative on the board of an organisation your first responsibility is to the organisation itself. Before you agree to become a member, consider whether you have sufficient time, skills, and experience to be effective. You will need enough time to attend and prepare for board meetings as well as any tasks you agree to. You will also need some knowledge of or experience in the sector.
Can you be committed to the organisation? Review your other interests and decide whether any would prevent you from making unbiased decisions.
Find out a bit more about who the consumers of the organisation’s service are and decide if you can represent them. You will also need to find a way to stay in touch with those consumers and other consumer representatives.
Once you’ve joined, organise your life so you can attend meetings, read papers before each meeting and do any necessary analysis, research, and thinking.
You must always act in the best interests of the organisation and its goals. While you have been appointed to provide the board with the consumer’s perspective when making decisions, you have the same responsibilities and accountabilities as other board members. These include ensuring the organisation:
- acts consistently with its objectives, functions, statement of intent and output agreement
- performs its functions effectively and consistently
- operates in a financially responsible manner.
All board members must
- act in the interests of the organisation as a whole, and not in their personal interest or interests of others
- be aware of relevant legislation and ensure it is complied with
- accept collective responsibility for all decisions
- act with honesty and integrity and in good faith
- apply experience, knowledge and expertise in an informed and constructive manner
- respect confidential information and not make improper use of information acquired by virtue of their position as a board member.
Interests and conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest arise when a board member’s personal interests or other responsibilities interfere with their responsibility to the organisation.
The decisions made by a board may be subject to specific legislative requirements around conflicts of interest so boards need to have procedures in place for handling these situations should they arise. Conflict of interest can occur if a board member
- provides services to the organisation or receives any benefit from the organisation
- is employed by a party to a transaction
- is directly or indirectly party to a transaction
- is a parent, child or spouse of a party to a transaction
- is a director, officer or trustee of a party to a transaction.
The conflict may be potential rather than actual, or perceived rather than material. When in doubt it’s best to take a broad view and tell.
During the nomination and appointments process you should have identified and discussed any actual and potential conflicts of interest. As a board member you will be asked to register your interests in the board’s Register of Interests. You are also expected to be aware of the interests of other board members.
Interests are not a matter to be dealt with once and then forgotten. Throughout your term of office you must continue to bear them in mind. You will be required to notify any changes to your interests and have the Register of Interests updated accordingly.
At the beginning of each meeting, board members should be asked to declare conflicts of interest with items on the agenda. As soon as you identify an actual or perceived conflict, declare it and its nature and extent to fellow board members at a board meeting. The board should then decide if there is a material conflict of interest and how it should be handled by the board member and the board.
Being effective in meetings
It is important to prepare before your first meeting no matter how many committees you are on. Find out:
the history of the organisation by taking an induction course or reading an information pack about the organisation you are joining
- what results the organisation has produced and expects
- who the board reports to and how they report
- who the other members of the board are and who they represent
- whether there are other consumer representatives on the board or on comparable boards through your networks
- the constitution, terms of reference, relevant legislation, and develop a working knowledge of them. Be aware of any responsibilities under the Companies Act 1993 or the Incorporated Societies Act 1903
- about the payment of fees and expenses, meeting times and dates (and any possibility of change)
- how the meetings are run (the meeting rules and standing orders followed).
Become familiar with how meetings are run. Different boards will have different ways to conduct a meeting, but will usually involve these basics:
- Quorum – The number of members who must be present for a meeting to go ahead.
- Agenda – What is going to be discussed at the meeting. Find out how items get onto the agenda. Every member has an equal right to place matters on the agenda.
- Apologies – Members unable to attend this meeting. If you cannot attend a meeting make sure you put in your apologies. This indicates you are still an active member of the committee.
- Minutes – The record of the meeting. You can request that your opinion on a matter is recorded in the Minutes when you think a decision is both important and ignores your input in a significant way.
- Confirmation of Minutes – Minutes are sent to you after a meeting and are accepted as a true and correct record at the next meeting. If you don’t agree that they are, you can ask that they be changed.
- Matters arising (from the Minutes) – This is when you ask what has happened to a matter since the last meeting.
- Motions – Decisions should always be proposed through the formulation of a motion which exactly describes the action proposed. For example, “That the Committee consult consumers through three meetings, paid for by the committee, and led by the Chairperson.”
At your first meeting you will meet the other board members. Ask them about their perspectives on things. Watch what happens and see who influences whom. Take each person seriously. Let them get used to you.
See how the chairperson runs the meetings and what the procedures are. For example, do you need to indicate that you wish to speak or does the chairperson ask everyone before going to decision-making. Observe how the chairperson deals with conflicts between board members. Talk to the chairperson and begin to develop a positive working relationship. Ask the chairperson what the process is for getting an item put on the agenda.
Preparing for following meetings
Do your homework – read your papers, find out the history of each issue, draw on the experience of other consumer representatives, talk to consumers, find out what happens elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas, identify the questions you need to ask, and rehearse what you want to say. Select issues to focus on and analyse:
- the impact a decision will have on consumers
- any strategic plan or terms of reference
- relevant legislation
- the history of the organisation and the history of the issue
- the quality of the information presented and gaps in any evidence you have collected
- any need for consultation with consumers prior to decision-making
- the information consumers will need
- acceptable trade-offs
- the process for review of any decision.
In the meeting
When you are talking, speak clearly and briefly – put your ideas forward, argue the options and present your conclusions. Ask questions until you do understand. You need to be clear on the options available. Make sure checks are in place to assess the impact and effectiveness of decisions.
Develop a working relationship with each member of the committee and with the committee as a whole so that they value the consumer input into decision-making. Ask the chairperson to deal with conflicts, or suggest how the conflict may be resolved. Don’t simply tolerate it.
Develop a way of regularly updating your constituency. You may use a newsletter, or regular meetings, or networking by telephone. Often the chairperson will help by clearly outlining what is confidential and what can be communicated at the end of each meeting.
Networks are a series of relationships developed for a purpose. The relationships are based on common interests, sharing information, joining forces, collaboration, sharing contracts, and sharing access to influence. If you are not prepared to collaborate and share you will not be able to network successfully.
People often have a range of overlapping networks. For example: you may have someone in your family network who keeps you in touch with tax and accounting issues because they work in that field. Or you may go to netball and rugby with a group of friends some of whom keep you informed about what is happening amongst other groups of people. You can use your networks to:
- gather and pass on information
- debrief, chat, reduce isolation, get personal assistance/mentoring/talking through issues, getting advice on strategy
- find a contact who can help you with a particular problem
- help others in difficult circumstances
- provide specialist information/advice eg tell someone what their basic consumer rights are, or give an informed opinion, or give them the questions they need to ask in your experience, or which, organisation / firm can help, etc
- arrange an introduction or a referral
- get advice and informed opinions.
Choose to network with people who:
- are part of the constituency you represent, including people who are pivotal in that constituency and people with no particular influence. You cannot represent them if you don’t have this level of contact
- work/socialise in a realm where they will come across information that may be useful or where they work with information which may be useful
- have useful information from time to time and for whom you can provide information and access
- are prepared to share information with you and are networkers themselves
- are compatible with you and probably share your values
- you can trust
- understand confidentiality.
Keeping your network active and healthy
To keep your network active get to know the members of your network well and keep in touch with them regularly whether or not you have information which may be useful. Ring them whenever you have information which is useful to them and when you need to talk things over and access their perspectives. To keep your network healthy:
- make sure members are not competing with each other or at least not in conflict. Members should have common reasons for networking
- listen to the person who contacts you. Make a match with the person and the problem
- make sure your recommendations are good ones – that you have paid attention to detail and recommended exactly the right person or the best event
- ask for something if you want it, don’t pretend. Networks fall apart when they are fed bad information or are used to manipulate for personal gain
- supply information as well as taking it and make sure it is good information. If you make a mistake, make a second call and correct it. You need to consistently supply information
- check in with people in your network and in the community at least monthly – asking how they are, what’s happening, sharing information with them or just discussing what’s happening in their world and in the world. Listen to their perspectives on events
- supply contacts as well as ask for them, even if you have to make a couple of phone calls and you are busy
- check out new contacts, don’t just add everyone to your network.
Keep up to date
Keep up to date with New Zealand and the world. The more formal and informal information you access the better. Basic keeping up-to-date starts with the national and local newspapers, radio and television bulletins and also includes touching base with talkback radio once a week and when something of interest has happened. Stay in touch with Maori news and gain access to all other newspaper sites.
Consumer Representative Network
The Consumer Representative Network was established in 2003 to provide consumer representatives with easy access to:
- strategic and other advice
- national and local information exchange
- personal support and
The Network is about getting and giving support and information to each other. If you want to know more, contact us.
Fees and expenses
Apply to be a consumer representative
If you are interested in being considered by Consumer Affairs for nomination as a consumer representative to a board or committee, you can apply to be on the database of our Consumer Representative Nominations Service.