The importance of ethical and intentional language when talking about customer vulnerability – Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, TASCOSS

The Energy Charter’s first principle is to put customers at the centre of energy business. But what does this mean in practice? There are thousands of ways this principle could and does manifest. But one thing is certain: enacting this principle (and indeed, all the other principles) means a lot of talking about and with customers.

At face value, more engagement with and about customers seems like an intrinsically good thing. However, if we are not empathetic, ethical, and intentional about the language we use when we engage, we risk doing great harm. This is most critically the case for those customers we classify as ‘facing vulnerable circumstances’—the demographic of focus for Principle 5.   

When we put people into categories or segments for business purposes and attach labels like ‘vulnerable’ or ‘disadvantaged’, we risk othering and stigmatising the people we are trying to support. Christine Tan, author of this Talk Poverty article titled I didn’t know I was poor until I applied to college, discusses the impact that organisational categorisation and labelling had on her:

We make a mistake when we assume poor [people] think of themselves as poor. Poverty as a label perpetuates false notions of identity—for those being labeled and for those making decisions on their behalf. … The complexities of who I am, and where I am from, got lost in the translation.

While this example comes from a different sector, the message rings true. The risks associated with use of broad categorisation and labels was also expanded on in a commentary in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Rethinking the use of ‘vulnerable’. In that commentary, author Stephanie Munari and colleagues argued:

Widespread, indiscriminate use of the term ‘vulnerable’ is problematic. When used as a term to describe certain individuals or populations in a nondescript and vague manner, the reader ‘fills in the blanks’ of why a certain individual or group is vulnerable. Being vulnerable could be seen as an intrinsic deficit, inferiority, or inability to protect the individual’s own best interests. This can in turn reduce both perceived and actual agency of the individual or group, depicting them as ‘others’ who are powerless and in need of protection. This may also result in further stigmatisation and exclusion of these individuals and groups.

These issues were the focus of a recent Policy Conversation run by the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS) where I hosted Dr Catherine Robinson from Anglicare Tasmania’s Social Action Research Centre. Dr Robinson posed important questions:

“In our field of social care what does it mean to describe those we serve as ‘vulnerable’?  Is this a valuable or even ethical way to characterize those who we may be aiming to assist to flourish in the ways they want and need?  Does the label or concept of ‘vulnerable’ actually help those we might apply it to?  What are the dangers of thinking about someone as ‘vulnerable’?  What could be enabled by determining a person is ‘vulnerable’?”

The resounding answer was, ‘it depends’. It depends on the (lack of) context and specificity you attach to such labels when you use them. It depends on who is using the labels, how they use them, and why. It depends on whether you are labelling people or groups as individually (and inherently) vulnerable or vulnerable because of systemic failures in providing support for their circumstances.

Dr Robinson proposed that whatever language we choose to use, “there is no ‘best’, fully ‘just’, or most ethical way to characterize human need. What matters most is always our efforts to practice care and complexity in understanding the conditions which give shape to human life and need.” She sees value in the term vulnerable in helping us “come to grips with the personal vulnerability a human can experience AND the social conditions that produce vulnerability.”

Dr Robinson sees value in the term vulnerable because it is universal: “We all have inherent vulnerability because we are human and all have capacity for intensified periods of vulnerability.” In the energy business space, this shared experience opens space for empathy between the workers seeking to provide support and the customers who benefit from those support efforts. To build on this empathy to ensure our approach to Principle 5 is ethical, there were a few key take home messages from the Policy Conversation which can guide our practice:

  • People-first language is a must: individuals/communities experience vulnerable rather than vulnerable individuals/communities.
  • It is critical to remember and name the link between the individual and the broader social structure that causes or maintains certain vulnerable circumstances. Humans are not born with vulnerability as an inherent trait—vulnerability is circumstantial and occurs when we find our selves in situations of need.
  • Make language specific and detailed when we use to describe vulnerability (and other related terms such as ‘disadvantage’) — connecting the individual with the system and providing nuance and context for the circumstances causing vulnerability. As one participant stated, “these terms still have use, as long as we take care to define them, and don’t rely on them as a shortcut.”
  • It is valuable to make time to consider and discuss these concepts critically with our colleagues to continue to push forward our thinking and practice. Consider having a team meeting to explore the questions around vulnerability posed by Dr Robinson (above).
  • We, as professionals in a large industry, can be agents of change with expertise and capacity to identify persistent problems in systems and lead by example when it comes to creating the change we want to see — both in our language and in working together to build solutions.
Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone,
Stakeholder Engagement & Policy Officer 

#BetterTogether – Supporting Consumer Advocacy

Energy Charter signatories have collaborated with consumer advocates to develop a Better Practice Consumer Advocacy Support Guide together to encourage Energy Charter signatories and others to better support consumer advocacy efforts.

This Better Practice Consumer Advocacy Support Guide was put together by the #BetterTogether Know your Customers and Communities initiative of the Energy Charter led by representatives from APA and Essential Energy and supported by AGIG, Endeavour Energy, Energy Queensland, Jemena, Horizon Power, Powerlink Queensland, TransGrid and Energy Networks Australia.

During early 2021, signatories reviewed the Uniting Report “Resourcing Consumer Engagement” and shared insights from individual businesses on the support that they individually provided to consumer advocates. They also looked more broadly for examples of better practice both in the energy sector and beyond. In mid-2021, the #BetterTogether initiative ran a human centred design workshop with advocates to discuss what works, what doesn’t work and what were the opportunities to do better to support consumer advocates.

This Better Practice Guide summarises the outcomes of this work. It does not purport to be a prescriptive list of obligations, but rather a “better practice guide” with a focus on encouraging better practice across Energy Charter signatories and beyond. The Guide sets out five better practice principles for supporting consumer advocacy:

  1. Get the basics right
  2. Co-ordination and prioritisation
  3. Consultation and Collaboration
  4. Capability building

It’s called a “Better Practice Guide” in recognition that we can always do better, and we are committed to continual improvement.

Supporting robust consumer advocacy is an important commitment under the Energy Charter (Principle 1.4) and was reinforced by a recommendation from the Independent Accountability Panel in its 2020 Report Recommendation 13: ‘Work with policy makers and market bodies to implement a way for consumer advocacy to be better resourced.’

“A Better Practice Guide of itself isn’t a silver bullet. It’s the discussions that Energy Charter signatories have had with consumer advocates and each other to encourage better support for consumer advocacy in the creation of the Guide that will move the dial. Culture change takes time. Tools like this nudge us in the right direction of authentic partnerships between advocates and industry.” Sabiene Heindl, Executive Director, The Energy Charter  

#BetterTogether – Championing Culture Change, from the Inside. June Gameau, CulturAlchemy

The purpose of the Energy Charter is to enable industry solutions needed to deliver a more affordable, reliable and sustainable energy system for all Australians. Critical to this transformation, is the work of Energy Charter champions, who are internal change champions driving customer-centric and community-focused change.

I have worked as an internal change champion for three decades, the last 9 years of which has been in the energy industry.   In the words of Sioban McHale (Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, 2021): “Culture change is one of the hardest jobs that you will ever do.”  But I can also say that it is one of the most rewarding areas to work in, when you start to see all of the forces aligned, mindsets and behaviours shifting, leaders listening and adapting, and people feeling a sense of hope that “this will work” and we can have a positive impact on our customers. 

So, why is change so hard? The truth is that culture change is complex, and in typical change programs, the more obvious aspects of organisation change are planned and tackled – e.g. structure, process, systems.  However, the more invisible and emotionally challenging elements of personal and cultural change are often left out of the equation.   For organizational change to have real impact, leaders of the change effort need to recognise the importance of the human element of change, and even more importantly, the personal transformation which needs to occur first.  

Organisations don’t change; people do, and it must start with leaders.”  Peter Fuda, (Leadership Transformed, 2014)

That was my opening quote at a recent workshop we held with Energy Charter signatories and FIAP members to share practical insights and lessons learned by industry change leaders.  I highlighted four key factors for internal change champions to pay attention to:

  1. Communication – don’t talk about the change, talk about the goal… communicate the compelling ‘why.’ As one of our panel members shared: regular communication taking in diverse perspectives and continuing to communicate and communicate is critical.  

  2. Leadership – Senior leaders have to role model the desired culture and lead with their personal transformation. Leaders also need to work hard at alignment; making sure they understand and are on the same page on the “what” and “how” of change.   Deep-level alignment can be supported through questions such as: What does that mean? How would you know? What would you see?

  3. Trusted coalition – As an internal change agent, you need the support of a coalition who will help you design, communicate, role model, and embed the change. Ensure you have the right characteristics in your coalition, including position power (who’s your executive sponsor?), capability, and credibility, and a team that will challenge your thinking and support you when the going is tough.

  4. Positive engagement & empowerment – When managing large-scale change, I have a simple formula I use to check if we have the right ingredients: Goal + Path + Agency.    The goal is our compelling why, enabled by the path – a detailed plan of what’s changing and how we will do it.  The last ingredient – agency – is people’s belief that their efforts will make a difference.   This comes with a lot of time spent engaging with impacted employees, customers and stakeholders and working through what matters most to them and how to address this through the change. 

This is probably one of the MOST critical roles that leaders need to play: communicating regularly and authentically, listening to their employees and customers, and then adapting their approach to address what’s needed.  

“Positive emotions matter enormously and can energise any effort. People must feel good about what is asked of them – and the only way to evolve their behaviours is to help them attach positive emotions to the (inherently frightening) idea of change.”   (Katzenback, 2019)

As we managed the unprecedented COVID-created changes in 2020, we learned a lot about what really matters, and we learned that we can transform rapidly.  We still face incredible uncertainty about the pandemic ahead.    But change champions and decision leaders together can unite to guide an adaptive and resilient way forward.  This is at the heart of the work of the Energy Charter.

June Gameau, CulturAlchemy