Safe at any speed?

Forty four years ago Ralph Nader published the classic consumer report “Unsafe at any speed”. He argued that product safety needed to be the responsibility of manufacturers and government. We have had huge advances since then, as a direct result of campaigning by the consumer movement. But what happens to all the information about products that are not safe? The next step is to be able to get this information out into the public domain.

At present, information on products that are recalled for safety reasons is kept out of the public domain, stored online in ways that search engines can never reach. As a result, consumers who search for products never know that it may have been withdrawn. The new Product Recall site from Consumer Focus Labs, the first from our online innovation programme, opens this up.

The idea of giving consumers access to information that experts have is core to the history of the consumer movement. Product ratings, for example, started in USA and Britain after pioneers like Michael Young saw that government agencies were rating products that they had to buy in bulk. He saw the opportunity to democratise that.

Consumer Focus Labs is a collaborative programme, using open source code, and while I believe this first site could be a landmark step, it is only the beginning for what we believe can be done for consumers by opening up data. You can follow us on twitter – or if you can use, link to or have ideas to add to the product recall site, let us know!

Wee Yellow Butterfly

9781906134297I have been reading The Wee Yellow Butterfly, which is a book by and about Cathy McCormack, the community campaigner from Glasgow. Her activism started with her house damp and children affected.

“I was to go to a press conference in City Chambers to talk about fuel poverty” she writes. “I was up to high doh trying to get my hair dried when the power card for the meter ran out… so I ran to the post office and you should have seen the queue. I waited and spent 15 pounds to get the power back on – a big chunk of our benefit money.”

The book is an inspiring mix of personality, poverty and passion.

One stop shopping centre

Around the table in one government department today and someone said “I can’t believe the number of one stop shops Government is setting up at the moment.” It is like the 53 bus. Consumers wait for one simple way to do things and then along come several.


Tim Berners Lee is now charged with unlocking public information! Wow. This is an appointment to outshine Ronaldo and Kaka heading for Madrid. There is data locked up in government which can be put to public uses that civil servants never dreamed of.

Though credit is in no way for me, I co-authored the original 2007 Power of Information report with Tom Steinberg. The Guardian says that this is now ‘the heart of government policy’ but the truth is that we only set in train efforts to unlock public information for wider re-use and there’s a lot more to do!

Rats, roofs and repairs

What tenants (in England) think of their landlords is something published today by the new social housing regulator, the Tenant Services Authority.

It is good to see the concerns of tenants in black and white – what one person described to me in the work I did with the National Housing Federation and others on “What Tenants Want” as ‘rats, roofs and repairs’… and ‘respect’ as another added.

In the current economic climate, though, there is also a concern beyond basic services about the viability of some of the social landlords. After all, what happens to tenants if a housing association goes bust?  The answer appears to be that either tenants transfer to a new social landlord if this is agreed as a take-over, or that if assets did revert to the money men, then tenants could face rent rises up to market levels… I trust the new regulator is on top of this too.

Which? awards

Which? launched their 2009 awards this afternoon, with an excellent array of good practice. Aldi is their supermarket of the year. the award winner for online retailing.

Robert Peston was the introductory speaker, saying that given the right information consumers tend to make much better judgements than the ‘financial priesthood’.

Memo to Ofcom

I gave a presentation at the Ofcom senior team awayday this afternoon.  Drawing on our research (‘Rating Regulators’ and my analysis of the Consumer Conditions Survey 2008) I argue that Ofcom compares well on the way it works as a regulator BUT that the markets it regulates are among the worst in the UK for consumer experience.

Clean food

I met Anne and colleagues from the Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside councils today who are running one of our partnership social marketing demonstration sites on consumer behaviour.

They are encouraging uptake of primary school meals at a time when recession is driving poorer diets and food choices. When they ask kids what puts them off school food, one group surprised their school by saying that they stayed away because the kitchen and food hall was dirty, so the food couldn’t be good. Clean the kitchens, the lesson was, and they will come.

Bill Smith, editor of the international journal Social Marketing Quarterly, described Anne’s work and other demonstration projects as the Susan Boyle of health – not pretty, not posh, but ever so good.