Friday, 13 January 2012

Free ideas

It’s time for another Consumer Watchdog giveaway. This time it’s two free ideas for Government to consider. They’re not just random ideas, these are two suggestions based on many years of experience of consumer rights enforcement in Botswana (or the lack of it). I firmly believe that these ideas stand a chance of improving the welfare of consumers and might actually empower them. See what you think.

Idea Number 1. Abolish the Consumer Protection Unit and decentralize consumer rights enforcement.

This isn’t a dig at the Consumer Protection Unit although I do think they aren’t using their powers even nearly enough. I’m suggesting this because I genuinely believe this is a way for individual consumers to have better enforcement of their rights and is a better way of spending our money.

I think the Consumer Protection Unit within the Ministry of Trade and Industry should be shut down. In it’s place a new but much, much smaller Consumer Rights Research and Policy Unit should be established. Their job would be much simpler, their list of tasks much smaller. It would be to research consumer rights, to critically examine what other countries are doing, to see what works and what doesn’t and to draft ideas for Parliament to consider as new Laws and Regulations. They would set the rules and policies that others would follow. It would also be their job to supply educational materials to the Ministry of Education who would incorporate it into the school curriculum. They could do all that hard work attending major conferences, benchmarking and engaging with international stakeholders. We would only need a handful of people to do this.

So who would actually enforce consumer rights if the Consumer Protection Unit was abolished? That’s the adventurous bit. I think Local Authorities and Councils could enforce these rights much more effectively. They already inspect and licence businesses, they already say whether a store can trade or not, they already check to see if they have the right number of toilets and fire escapes. They are the ones who actually visit the stores and meet the managers. They are the ones who are best placed to say, based on the complaints they’ve received, whether a store respects consumer’s rights or not. They’re certainly in a better position to determine these things than a distant government office. They could only be more effective.

I think we should create new positions in Local Authorities and Councils. Call them Consumer Rights Officers. It would be their job to receive complaints and to investigate them, suggest resolutions and, critically, to make sure everything they do regarding a store is filed away for review next time the store’s licence is due for renewal. When the review occurs each year the Consumer Rights Officer would be required to report the number and nature of the complaints received and to comment on how well they had been resolved. If too many complaints have come in, or the store has failed to resolve enough of them, the Consumer Rights Officer’s job would be to veto the licence renewal.

Can you imagine how well customers would be treated if a store owner knew that their licence to trade wasn’t going to be renewed if they'd mistreated too many customers in the last few months?

I haven’t done the maths but I can’t imagine this would cost any more than the existing arrangements. Simply transfer the existing Consumer Protection staff to the councils. You could also drastically reduce the need to even threaten misbehaving stores with prosecution. The potential removal of their trade licence would be more than enough to make them behave themselves.

I like this idea because it makes consumer right enforcement a local issue. It even makes it a political issue. Imagine how exciting a local council election would be if consumer rights became a local issue.

Idea Number 2. Make the Consumer Protection Regulations personally enforceable.

Currently the only organization in Botswana that actually has the power to enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations is the Consumer Protection Unit. You and I can’t enforce them. This must change.

I want us all to have the right to take an organization to court for breaching the Regulations, without having to rely on any part of the Public Service to do it for us. I want you and I to be able to go to the Small Claims Court and explain that a store has breached a Section of the Regulations and to have them grant us an order to get the matter resolved. I don’t want to queue up and wait for anyone else to do it on my behalf. Like you, I’m a grown up who can look after myself if I’m given the opportunity to do so.

I think that the time has come for the people to be trusted by their Government. It’s time to treat us as mature, confident and educated grown-ups who want to look after themselves. As a parent I know it’s difficult to let your kids take more and more responsibility for their lives but you have to do it. The same goes for a democratic Government and it’s people. It’s about time we were trusted with our own welfare. Give us the weapons, like the excellent Small Claims Court, but let us use them ourselves, not via anonymous and bureaucratic organs of the Public Service.

I think that localizing the enforcement of consumer rights and giving the people the power to do a lot of this themselves might dramatically improve our lives. It might also make us feel a bit more grown up.

So what do you think? Honestly, what do you think? I want feedback. If I get enough constructive feedback I’ll send a copy of this article to the people with the power to actually make this all happen. Then we can see if they agree too that we’re grown-ups!

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