Being effective

There are a number of ways in which consumer representatives can increase their effectiveness and demonstrate to committee members the importance of the consumer perspective. Below are suggestions which may help you in your work as a consumer representative. Your strength is in your own knowledge and experience and the experiences of others in the consumer movement: this makes your input valuable.

    What qualities make an effective consumer representative?

    There are some qualities which are important in ensuring that you are effective. It helps if you have ability to:

    • remember to base your argument on the broader consumer experience, not your personal story
    • analyse an issue, and determine its effects on consumers
    • move away from a personal opinion to a viewpoint that takes account of the diversity of experiences and needs of consumers
    • present an argument rationally and convincingly
    • understand the consequences of decisions, in the short and long term
    • negotiate and
    • always speak with respect and sincerity.

    There is no correct way to become an effective representative, much of it is learned from experience and networking. Seek out relevant information and workshops, and take every opportunity to network with other consumer representatives and your nominating organisation to improve your skills.

    Remember your nominating organisation can provide you with support and resources to assist you in your role.

    Create a positive first impression

    First impressions are crucial!

    Aim to create a first (and lasting) impression as someone who is organised, open to ideas and confident of your own opinions. On the first day, arrive a little early so that there is time to meet all members, and to chat informally with them. Choose a seat where you can see, and be seen by, everyone at the table. Make your point clear and don't feel you need to talk at every opportunity.

    Once you've established yourself on a committee you will feel comfortable in promoting consumer issues.

    Introducing issues and ideas

    If you have decided to discuss a particular issue, or move a particular issue forward, you will need to prepare your strategy well. Preparation is the key to success

    Think about:

    • how you will introduce that point
    • what facts/research you will need to support your issue
    • when is the right time to raise a point to inform the discussion (inappropriate timing may cause you to lose the opportunity)
    • who is likely to support you (you may wish to discuss your approach and form allies beforehand).

    Sometimes it is useful to write a paper on an issue. Committee members may prefer to respond to written arguments. You may well find your paper forms the working document for the discussion.

    Speak with potential allies

    Forming alliances with other committee members is a normal part of committee work; use these to your advantage. However, if standing alone is unavoidable, support your position with logical argument and evidence.

    It is important to work out any potential allies. Some allies may support you on some issues, and not on others. Anyone on the committee is a potential ally depending on what issues are discussed.

    Try sounding out issues with other committee members because this way you can decide if they are worth raising with the full committee.

    Discuss issues and approaches with one or more others. You may seek out a caucus, or others may seek you out. If you feel you are compromising your own position by joining a caucus, decide to stand apart.

    Consult

    Consulting with consumer groups and your nominating organisation is crucial for ensuring effective representation. Through consultation you ensure that you are able to provide a broader perspective and not just providing a personal opinion. This will increase your credibility and ensure that you are effectively representing consumers.

    Network

    It is especially important to talk with any other consumer representatives on the committee and on related committees, to see what their opinions are on a particular issue. Importantly, you share ideas on important issues, discuss why they are important, and what outcomes are desirable.

    If you are on a committee which is part of a structure with many levels of sub-committees and working parties, it is extremely important to have a good network with other consumer representatives within the structure.

    Ask your nominating organisation or the committee Secretariat to supply you with a list of names of other consumer representatives and a chart of the committee structure.

    Get a briefing

    If you are taking over from a consumer representative who has served on the committee then it is wise to get a briefing from them. Ask them about:

    • what achievements and difficulties they had on the committee
    • who were their friends and foes (remember they may not turn out to be your friends or foes). However, it is important for you to make up your own mind once you have experienced the committee.
    • what issues are the most crucial for consumers
    • is the committee Chair supportive of having a consumer representative?
    • the support available from the committee Secretariat and
    • the process for claiming reimbursements.

    Report regularly

    Reporting regularly to your nominating organisation ensures that consumer representatives are accountable and credible. This enables the nominating organisation to support you in your work as a consumer representative. They can give informed policy advice, and advise you to talk to other consumers in their networks. When reporting to your nominating organisation, it is important to remember issues around confidentiality of information.

    Perform positive tasks

    Committee members will take on many different roles and tasks. It helps to know what committee duties typically need doing, and when. This ensures that you are a positive force within the committee. Keep in mind whenever you can to:

    • bring the discussion back to the relevant issue
    • initiate new discussion
    • summarise major points
    • think laterally when discussion is not getting anywhere
    • blend various people's comments together
    • connect two points
    • diagnose a problem
    • inspire others
    • relieve tension, or create useful tension
    • remain active even when the issue does not have consumer implications.

    Keep control

    Play an active part in your committee work to increase the profile and value of consumer representation. Active participation includes:

    • preparing for the meetings and actively discussing issues
    • adding items on the agenda
    • presenting papers for discussion.

    Deal with any frustration

    Being a consumer representative can be hard work especially if you are the only consumer representative, or if you are on a committee who has not had a consumer representative before or your role is to give the appearance of consulting with consumers. It is worth reflecting on your role and your expectations for your committee work. Talk with your nominating organisation about your difficulties and frustrations. You may need to decide if it is time to ease yourself out and let a new representative take over.

    If you feel that your appointment was a public relations exercise, you should try to change attitudes by demonstrating your ability as an effective committee member. Get advice from your nominating organisation if the problem persists.

    Separate the people from the problem

    Even while retaining a clear sense of the differences in positions, and an understanding that there are often real conflicts of interest, avoid projecting an 'us' and 'them' feeling.

    If you are working with people on an ongoing committee, it is important to keep up a good working relationship. This is often more important for future decisions than the outcome of one particular negotiation. Talk to other members before and after meetings, think of them as colleagues, rather than as enemies you need to avoid.

    Fight over the issues, do not fight because of personal animosity. You will gain respect from people if you present a strong, logical argument without holding any personal antipathy.

    Listen

    Put yourself in the other person's shoes discuss each other's perceptions. Ask questions so that you understand, and could explain, the other's point of view.

    Ensure that everyone participates so they will have a commitment to the outcome.

    Listening is an important tool as you may need to check that you understood the discussion. Try interpreting and reading back others' statements. Remember to ask questions if you are unsure of an issue, chances are others within the committee also need clarification.

    Focus on interests

    By locking yourself into a position which you must defend, you will find changing your position difficult. Early on, try to articulate your interests or principles, rather than taking a position or stand.

    Rather than expecting, and looking for, opposing interests, look for the shared interests. This is difficult when people have different perspectives, or are not open to opposing views. Reformat the debate in your language, your terms, and your definition of the problem. Ask questions to identify the other members' interests.

    Don't state your solution first. Spend time analysing and discussing the problem, sorting out the common interests, and then put a solution, relating it to those interests. Try to work out joint solutions, so that it is not 'your' solution or 'their' solution, but everyone's solution.

    Don't constantly refer to past behaviour or statements (unless it is useful to do so) focus on the present and the future.

    Be creative

    There is no single correct answer. Brainstorming is a helpful way of looking for creative solutions. This is done either within your committee; or you can reach your own idea of a solution outside the committee meeting, using people from your nominating organisation.

    Remember to use the 'rules' of brainstorming such as collecting and building on ideas, no matter how way out, don't evaluate them until later.

    Use agreed-upon criteria

    The costs of making any decision on the basis of who has the strongest will are very high, especially as the loser can feel resentful and bitter. If the committee members agree that decisions are made by taking the most votes, then move on whether you 'win' or 'lose'. Reflect and learn from your actions and consider alternative ways you may have been able to present your points or arguments for a successful outcome.

    Ensure everyone is committed to the outcome

    Once you and the other committee members have reached a decision, make sure everyone knows:

    • what is going to happen next
    • who is going to do what, and by when
    • what resources are available
    • what would be the consequences for not following through on agreements or tasks.

    Improve your skills

    Once you settle in your role, you may find it useful to attend a course in negotiating, public speaking, assertiveness or communication skills.

    Courses are often available at reasonable cost in adult continuing education centres. It is often useful to get a group together and arrange some training. Your nominating organisation may be able to support you or have some ideas on where good and affordable training is available.

    Your committee may also offer training or professional development opportunities. Discuss your needs with the committee Chair.

    Be aware of certain group behaviours

    Often a committee will develop particular characteristics which are not conducive to effective committee work. Committee members may have tendencies to:

    Groupthink

    When a group is very cohesive, there is the risk of groupthink. This becomes a problem if the committee is agreeing to decisions that will adversely affect consumers. You may find that everyone is getting along so well that you or other committee members do not want conflict, so decisions are agreed to too readily.

    Keep it in the back of your mind that groupthink can happen, especially when you are most enjoying committee meetings, because things are running so smoothly! Consciously assess each decision made by the committee. If you decide that decisions may adversely affect consumers then you must voice your concerns.

    Work avoidance

    Committee members often avoid working on the real issues when the committee is very busy with long agendas. Perhaps time is spent discussing problems which the committee has no scope to change or focusing on trivia and putting the hard issues at the end of the agenda. As with groupthink, this can happen when things seem to be going very well.

    Remind committee members of the aims of the committee and its terms of reference. Suggest that the committee take time out to reassess its priorities.

    Losing independence

    Occasionally you may find that committee members are so enthusiastic about the work of the committee that you find yourself caught up in their enthusiasm. This is not necessarily a problem unless it clouds your consumer perspective and prevents you from voicing problems or concerns.

    If you feel that you have lost focus, reassess the purpose of your appointment and your goals. If it becomes a real problem then you need to discuss this issue with your nominating organisation.

    Putting people into certain roles

    You may find that as a consumer representative you are placed in the role of complainant or opponent; or that the committee places a member in the role of leader and tries to get them to make the committee's decisions for them and to resolve any conflicts; or that one member is made into the committee's scapegoat.

    Try to avoid this role stereotyping. It is useful at times to surprise others by agreeing with them and being positive. Beware of the tendency to get one person to do the committee's work and blaming this person if the committee doesn't achieve its objectives

    If you notice role casting, point it out to the rest of the committee. Remind committee members that you all must work as a group. The final outcomes are as a group, not as individuals.

    Evaluate your committee

    It is important to reflect on whether a committee is effective. This helps you to evaluate your own performance. Think about:

    • why was this committee established?
    • does it have any real power?
    • what were its long-term goals?
    • does it have adequate resources to carry out its work?
    • are decisions followed up by action? If not, why not?
    • is there anything you as a member can do? You could raise your feelings at the meeting or discuss your feelings with other members informally.

    Consider action, such as preparing a definite proposal for discussion at the next meeting or suggesting the committee solve small achievable goals.

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