A cross-sector approach to vulnerability

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Guest blog

26th July 2019
Areas covered:
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Stephanie Trubshaw, Customer Director, Electricity North WestThere are clear opportunities to collaborate across markets to improve outcomes for consumers, particularly for the most vulnerable. Issues such as identifying vulnerability, affordability and customer service needs cut across multiple sectors. Here Stephanie Trubshaw, customer director at network operator Electricity North West, talks about their recent priority services data share trial with the water company United Utilities.

Our research tells us that vulnerable customers can be particularly disadvantaged when they lose a vital service like power, water or gas. These customers have also told us how they are reassured by targeted support services like the Priority Services Register. Some too have shared their experience of a ‘one-stop shop’ service from local councils. This recently prompted us to explore how we could provide a single sign-up point to register for the support services available from utilities.    

Last year we teamed up with United Utilities, the North West’s water and wastewater provider, for an innovative priority services data-sharing trial. During the trial, 80% of customers agreed to have their data shared. Qualitative research showed high-levels of endorsement and satisfaction with this approach, and the additional support service access that resulted.  

The partnership complemented existing arrangements we had with Cadent, the North West’s gas network operator, where they provided us with Priority Service Register referrals from their customers.  We also have a similar agreement with Northern Gas Networks.  

In October 2017 Ofgem and Ofwat (the water regulator) established the ‘Making better use of data: identifying customers in vulnerable situations’ initiative through the UK Regulators’ Network (UKRN). The expectation was that water and energy companies should explore cross-sector non-financial vulnerability data sharing, and continue to work together alongside third parties to support and identify customers in vulnerable situations.  

Our earlier data sharing pilot with United Utilities had pre-empted this call, and was cited as a ‘great demonstration of what cross-sector utility companies can achieve by working together’ in their November 2018 UKRN follow-up report.      

During the pilot, we securely shared data for 13 thousand Priority Service Register customers with United Utilities. In turn, they provided us with over five thousand records from which we were able to complete two thousand new registrations on our register, matching up our priority support to customers that need it most. We met regularly throughout the trial to discuss feedback on customer experience, challenges and how we were overcoming them and to share best practice. This approach has now become business as usual between us, and our joint lessons are being taken forward with an ambition to roll out Priority Service Register data sharing nationally between the water and energy sectors by 2020. 

Trials like these are the types of positive and inclusive innovation that Ofgem is encouraging in its Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, published in June 2019.  It also delivers against their ambition for more partnership working to tackle issues that cut across multiple sectors, and improve identification of vulnerability and make smart use of data.  We’re now leading the cross-sector conversation on the benefits this scheme is delivering for our most vulnerable customers.  

In statistics published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in June 2019, the North West was identified as the area with the highest incidence of fuel poverty in England. This adds urgency to our work. Our priority is straightforward; we need to develop practical solutions for our poorest and most vulnerable customers, and we’ll continue to work with our partners to deliver these.  

Collaborating across markets

Ofgem has set out a number of priorities to help address vulnerability issues that cut across multiple sectors in its new Consumer Vulnerability Strategy. We’re asking for input on our proposals by 8 August 2019. Learn more and respond here.

We are also delivering a number of data initiatives to promote best practice in openness and interoperability of data to benefit consumers in energy, to be transferable across markets. Learn more


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Our series of guest blogs represent the views of the authors writing with a view to encouraging debate about important energy topics. They do not represent the views of Ofgem, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or commitment by Ofgem to take any particular course of action.