Difficulties with consumer representation

    Confidentiality

    Committees often deal with matters which must remain confidential within the committee. Sometimes a matter is confidential until a public announcement is made.

    Confidentiality requirements, and how to deal with them without compromising the ability to consult effectively is an issue faced by many consumer representatives.

    Clarify the issue of confidentiality early on. Not all issues and decisions arising in meetings are necessarily confidential. If a matter arises and you are unsure if it is confidential, discuss it at the meeting.

    Confidential information is likely to become a problem for you where it routinely hinders your ability to consult appropriately or where it is used to stifle discussion or compromise the independence of representatives. You must seek advice from your nominating organisation if this is the case.

    Confidentiality requirements of the committee do not release you from any reporting or consulting duties. Representatives may need to clear written reports with the committee's Chairperson before they are distributed to nominating organisations or other consumers.

    Use these useful tips for dealing with confidentiality issues:

    • Ask the Chair/committee Secretariat for guidance on what material is confidential and what isn't
    • If confidentiality is applied 'blanket' fashion, raise concerns that this makes it difficult/impossible for the consumer representative to fulfil the role expected
    • Clear reports with the Chair
    • Prepare a report that draws on information available in the public domain prior to commencing on the committee. This helps provide a base for consumer consultation on non-confidential material (that can then be used to inform the confidential work on the committee). Look for a way to distinguish between publicly available information and confidential material

    Conflict of interest

    Consumer representatives are expected to act with integrity at all times and not compromise the interests of consumers. If you discover that you have a conflict of interest or that you may be perceived to have a conflict of interest, you must bring it to the attention of your nominating organisation and the committee Chair.

    An example of a conflict of interest is if you were on a committee to decide on the purchase of a particular item of equipment and one of the suppliers for this particular piece of equipment was a company where a member of your family was employed. Having an interest in one of the companies may influence your decision.

    If it is a major conflict, it will make representation difficult. In extreme cases you and your nominating organisation may decide that you need to resign your position on the committee.

    Isolation

    You may experience the unease of being the only person representing consumers on a committee. Government and industry typically have several representatives while there is often only one consumer representative.

    You can address your isolation by keeping in regular contact with your nominating organisation and other consumer representatives in your network. Your presence often raises the level of awareness of those on the committee and may lead to the increase of consumer representation.

    Lack of resources

    In comparison with most committee members, consumer representatives are poorly resourced. Both industry and government representatives often attend committee meetings as part of their jobs where expenses are paid and hours are allocated. Consumer representatives seldom have such luxuries.

    In many cases consumer representatives take time out from their paid employment to attend meetings and rely on their employers to get time off. Sitting fees are not always paid.

    Consumer representatives may have limited or no access to the internet, e-mail and faxes and have to do committee work at home. Networking is done in their own time and phone calls are usually made from home.

    Consumer representatives are often out-of-pocket for routine committee work such as making phone calls. A fact sheet is available to provide to the Secretariat detailing suggested entitlements.

    Try to find ways to have the committee pay for expenses such as:

    • having them ring you back when you call them
    • paying for the cost of your printing or ask to be sent hard copies of all the meeting documents
    • internet costs.

    Consensus

    Occasionally there may be more than one consumer representative on a committee. It is preferable for representatives to plan together (caucus) before each meeting and reach a consensus position on issues to strengthen the consumer position.

    If a consensus is not reached you may decide to refer to your nominating organisation for advice or focus on the Charter of Healthcare Rights to deal with the issue rather than presenting differing consumer views.

    Directorships of incorporated entities

    Although not all consumer representatives serve on company boards, increasingly they are filling this role. This may place you in the position of having to assume liability as a director. It is your responsibility to know your rights and liabilities when appointed as a director. You should seek specific training to understand and support the role.

    In particular, you should check whether the company has the appropriate insurance to protect its directors. Make sure you are aware of your responsibilities and accountability.

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