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The present

The Consumers’ Association is in a state of significant change, and has been since 1996. Prior to that date the magazine, Which?, was known and read widely; every library in the UK had a copy, schools used it as a teaching resource, newspapers printed extracts on a monthly basis, TV and Radio commentators reported some of its findings and every business awaited the monthly list of reviews with baited breath. But apart from a small letters section at the back of each magazine, Which? And the CA were a closed shop. The management made their decisions on what to review and test in secret, the tests were almost exclusively in-house, the testing schedule was guarded carefully and - above all - the magazine was impossible to get unless you paid a subscription. It wasn’t available from any bookseller and it didn’t take advertising, neither did it permit its reviews or recommendations to be published by anyone else.

This fortress-like mentality had served Which? well in the past, when fears for its existence, because of the strict libel laws in the UK, were tested in the courts. Which? won, however, and it seemed the future was safe. But something was on the horizon; something that - in its wildest dreams - the organisation could never have imagined.


The personal computer emerged for ordinary people in the early ‘80s. Crude and slow, most became games machines and few were used for anything else. Gradually, however, speeds increased and prices dropped. Computer manufacturers came and went until the big change: in the early ‘90s the internet arrived for the home. By the mid-‘90s companies were starting to look seriously at what this meant and the CA wanted to be in the vanguard.

Perhaps conscious of their founder’s original aspirations, Which? started an ISP, an online forum and a content site at the same time.

Looking back it’s hard to overstate the importance of the transition: from an organisation whose dealings were largely hidden from the public to an open, transparent and interactive organisation where access to the senior management was not only allowed but encouraged, the CA experienced a sea change unlike anything in its history. For the first time proposed changes and innovations were not only seen by the members as they were mooted, but were debated by them.


Fast forward to today. The present set up of the CA, or Which?, is interesting. One important aspect of the remit for gaining Charity Status requires oversight by a council, or committee, of independent, unpaid volunteers who must be elected from the body of the membership. And herein lies a conundrum.

As that bastion of egalitarian enterprise, the Co-op group, has recently discovered, large numbers of unqualified chefs can create a right mess of the soup. To be fair to PV-S at the outset of his reign he faced a combination of rising costs and dwindling subscriber numbers. It was clear something had to be done, and cutting costs was a clear option. But the CA was unique. It existed only as long as the buying public felt they needed it - in that sense, no different to any other commercial entity - but its charitable status, coupled with its own constitution prevented expansion into anything which could not be rationalised in terms of its overall remit. Sadly, PV-S saw things solely from an economic perspective. To that end he decided that the only way forward was to transfer increasing power over the organisation to Which? Ltd., a wholly-owned commercial subsidiary of the Charity. But he was also astute enough to realise that that couldn’t be done in a single step. If he moved too quickly, the Ordinary Membership - a fairly cognisant bunch - would realise what was happening and try to prevent a handful of paid ex-company executives taking control. Mindful of that he hatched a multi-layered plan to enhance the power of Which? Ltd whilst simultaneously reducing the power of the elected Council members and the Ordinary Member voters.

This plan incorporated several stages: Firstly, grant all subscribers the opportunity to vote for councillors. No special effort would now be needed to be able to vote in a council election. This was very clever indeed. At a stroke, he gained the reputation of being a democrat whilst accomplishing the dilution of those willing to take an active interest in the CA’s affairs and vote accordingly. The thinkers and activists (some might say ‘troublemakers’) were thus effectively marginalised.

Secondly, reduce the council membership. Again, easy to argue that the council was overloaded, but what would happen when the ratio of elected council members to co-opted members changed? The elected members, albeit those now being elected by everyone, would lose their influence as a bloc. More worryingly, “(the) elected council members (represented) mainly charitable and consumer interests, and co-opted members the commercially oriented aspects which were and are also served comprehensively by the Which? Board. Both groups are important and neither should attempt to usurp the other. A reduction in (the) elected number with consumer experience from a broad church and geographically countrywide would shift the balance of overall power between these two camps away from the charity/consumer perspective and could damage (the) role of the CA.”. The reduction in elected members had been proposed in 2008, but was not backed by the council. PV-S then ensured that the existing council faced fewer, longer meetings with worrying gaps between them and ever-fuller agendas so that - perhaps inevitably - at least some members would then back his original proposal. Of course, more frequent meetings would have alleviated the issue to some extent, but that wasn’t part of his plan.

In 2008 he engineered a proposal that would see long-serving members of council forced out simply on the basis of length of service. Now, what was interesting here was that the same limits did not apply to members he had co-opted, nor to members of Which? Ltd. In other words, the limits only applied to those legitimately elected by the membership to protect the Association and its reputation.

Even from a completely objective viewpoint, it does seem as though the CA was being steered towards a commercial entity and away from the original charitable aspiration.

This is an ongoing work; in time the CA, Which? or whatever it chooses to call itself will cease to exist, and those responsible will be those in power at the moment.


A worrying trend


But the rot goes further. The Council itself is supposed to be a democratically elected body, yet indisputable evidence exists that it is nothing of the sort.

Roger Pittock, a Council member elected twice in succession, was forced to stand down after Council - urged on by PVS - passed a resolution restricting the length any member could service. Curiously, the same length of time - 9 years - didn’t seem to apply to members of the Which?: Ltd board or to PVS himself. Roger Pittock complied, but when he reapplied after the statutory absence, his candidature was turned down by the Council. He received this letter:

Dear Roger

I am writing to let you know about the outcome of your nomination for election to the Council of Trustees.

This year 15 candidates were nominated for three Council vacancies. As this is five times the number of vacancies, the Council has elected to reduce the number of Candidates that will stand for election as permitted by the Council Election Procedure Rules (the Rules).

The Council has looked to achieve representation that ensures candidates possess the skills and experience necessary for Which? to continue to grow in a challenging environment and work towards promoting the interests of all consumers. Specifically, they have looked closely at each candidate information form for evidence of: strategic experience at a senior level in digital media; strategic or senior experience in the commercial sector; or high-level experience of policy development, particularly in personal finance, utilities (particularly energy), health care or higher education.

I am sorry to inform you that, after consideration by the Council, your nomination will not be taken forward for election. This is because the Council has determined that, based on its review of the candidate information forms, there are 10 other candidates that have demonstrated greater evidence of the skills and experience outlined above.

The Rules do enable those candidates who have not been taken forward for election to appeal. Should you wish to appeal, you have seven days from today, 24 September 2014 to submit your appeal in writing to myself as Company Secretary for consideration by the Council Chairman. Your submission must not exceed 500 words.

Once again, thank you for your nomination and your commitment to Which?, and I am sorry your nomination has not been taken forward this time.

Kind regards
Andrew Reading
Company Secretary

This was based on the oddly constructed Council rules, but these rules seem designed to ensure only those whom the council want to stand are allowed to contest a seat. The pertinent section is this:

“3.14  If the number of Candidates validly nominated exceeds by a factor of three the number of vacancies on the Council, the Council may exclude one or more of the Candidates validly nominated so as to reduce the number of Candidates to stand in the election, but in that case the number of Candidates remaining to stand in the election following such exclusion must be at least three times the number of such vacancies. The Council shall determine the method by which any such exclusion shall take place and, having done so, shall follow that method. That method must be one which gives no advantage to Candidates who are already members of the Council and may be:

. (a)  by lot; or
. (b)  by a process of selection designed to achieve representation on the Council of people that the Council considers to possess appropriate or desirable knowledge and experience. All other factors being equal, Council shall also aim to achieve appropriate representation on the Council of women and men; of ethnic groups; of the young, the middle aged and the elderly; and of people from different parts of the United Kingdom.

but at the time of Pittock’s application there were 15 candidates standing - an almost unheard-of number. Who these candidates are and who proposed them is a matter of conjecture at this point in time, but a worrying pattern of cronyism seems to be emerging. Most tellingly, Pittock’s proposers were members of the CA who had been strong critics of the way in which PVS had allowed the character of the CA itself to change.


The last word, however, should go to the member whose uncanny prescience many years ago about what would happen in the CA has been proved correct, over and over again.

From essays in The Wol Dialogue and beyond, by JB


The powers that be regard our concerns as unlikely to affect the general reputation of the CA.  I think they are wrong. This is not because other subscribers share our concerns - as Ian points out few of them do - but I think that we are observing a trend that will, if it continues, create a general problem. The people that control the CA are building up a habit of indifference combined with a history of failure.

We are focussing here, inevitably, on the forum system.  I think its failures could endanger the reputation of the CA, but perhaps there are too few of us who care. I wonder if the CA actually worries more that the forums could cause trouble than it worries how well implemented they are. And it's true that a forum system supplied by an organisation like Which Online requires active control and moderation if it is to avoid damage from unfortunate interactions between subscribers; this may account for some of the reluctance to support the forums.

Now it's true that the forums have few contributors and maybe not too many readers, but those who do use them at all must be aware that the implementation is flaky.  Then again, the number of ISP users is, I believe, about 1 in 10 of the subscribers, but those that remain must be aware that the ISP is inadequate. I, as a forum user and one who retains addresses, regard these parts of Which Online as flawed; why would I recommend Which Online to anyone? You will say that there are 100,000 or more content subscribers; how many of them are actively promoting Which Online?

Reputation is not piecemeal. If some activities of the CA fail, then that is inevitable, but when such an activity does fail, then it is worth ensuring that the loss of reputation due to that failure is minimised. I don't think that this has been done.

I'll mention two other things that cannot help the reputation of the CA. The Which Web Trader scheme was started and promoted with much bravura. It was abruptly closed down. The possibility of the criteria used for accreditation being taken up by other agencies was refused. Goodness knows what the member companies thought of it all, very cross indeed would be my guess.

Then again there is Which Extra. Why? It is funded from the magazine subscriptions. It is supposed to contain nothing not already present in Which Online (that has been questioned), but presumably its presence diminishes the unique value of Which Online. Again, a potential source of discontent.

I know that nothing I've mentioned could be taken in itself to cause a general lack of confidence in the CA, but these things add up. Some will even ask, what next; they might look at the magazines and the marketing of the CA and wonder where it is going.

In summary, I believe that Which Online has some real but curable problems, and that even a small number of people being irritated by each of those problems will cause cumulative damage to the reputation of the CA.

I will add one further point on reputation: what is the reputation of the CA as an employer

Secrecy and Openness

Let's start by assuming that the purpose of the CA is to represent the interests of the consumer. Clearly that must be focused on the interests of the CA subscriber, extending to the potential subscriber (and former subscriber), and then to the consumer in general. If the CA is working well, then these slightly diverse interests will coincide.

To determine the interests of consumers the CA will (apart from simply using an intelligent extrapolation of common experience) need to ask its subscribers. In the old style this would have meant taking surveys and soliciting letters to the Editor of Which? But, inevitably, this did not enable people to build on each other's experiences, unless they were published by the CA.

The advent of the internet, and in particular the existence of the forum, has allowed a much more general exchange of information. When someone posts their concerns to a forum, those concerns are made visible, and it may well be the case that this alone means that the CA itself is informed of something that was not formerly seen as worth pursuing. But the use of such a channel does mean that the CA will have to accept the visibility of the choices it makes on which issues to take up.

I think that the management of the CA has become increasingly reluctant to accept the implications of the open channel provided by the forums, but then I also think that the CA has shifted towards a culture of secrecy that is now dominating many of its choices. It does not consult.

The history of the attempted introduction of "Newwol" was marked by an apparent refusal to consult anyone. There is some evidence that there was some input from subscribers, but that it was hedged by an insistence on confidentiality, and, moreover, ignored.

Other initiatives, the rebranding of the CA as "Which?", and the appointment of a new Director, were conducted in secrecy. I know that many people think that these decisions should be made in private; I do not. I believe that the only secrets within the CA should be those concerning the proper privacy of its employees.

I have seen the argument that the CA must retain confidentiality in its commercial enterprises; I believe that if it finds itself in some form of commercial competition that requires confidentiality, then the CA has made a wrong choice. I have seen the argument that when the CA employs another company to perform part of its task, then it may have confidentiality imposed as part of the contract with that company; I believe that in such a case the need for secrecy is a reliable indicator that the CA has chosen an inappropriate partner.

The CA was founded, by Michael Young - Lord Young of Dartington as he became - as a co-operative enterprise. His vision was that the CA would be an association, and that the input of its subscribers would be essential to it. I cannot believe that, when a technological innovation arrived which would enhance the ability of the subscribers to co-operate, that he would have argued for the suppression within the CA of the innovation. Sadly, it is clear that those controlling the CA now take a different view.



The CA; is it really necessary?

Is the CA still capable of being the proper organisation to represent the interests of consumers, against powerful forces, specifically on the internet?

Why would I think that, apart from clear glitches in the online presence, and some infelicities of style in the magazines - not yet quite dumbing down - the CA as a whole is failing in its primary tasks?

First, the rebranding; it was expensive and, even if it was justified, I felt it went too far. I admired the Consumers' Association. The decision to drop that name, and not merely to drop it, but to excise all mention of it, was - I believe - a mistake. The phrase "Consumers' Association" may not have had what the marketeers call "recognition", but it was positive and welcome to those of us who knew it. To drop it lost that positive effect. I would have hoped that, at least, the phrase "Consumers' Association" would remain visible in the publications and websites of "Which?"

Secondly, I see an increasing tendency to place the CA uncritically on the side of larger forces, for example the banks, when it receives a complaint from an individual, for example concerns raised about the introduction of "chip and pin" cards. As an aside, and returning to secrecy, whoever within the CA management made that decision has declined to identify himself or herself.

The management: let's look at what we know of the structure and control of the CA. There is a Council and there is a Board (they overlap a little). The Council and Board each have a chairman. There is a Chief Executive (a job title which replaced, at some point, that of Director). There is a Corporate Management Group. There are various other job titles: directors, editors, heads of this and that. Who appoints these people (apart from the partially elected Council)? Who runs the CA?

All this assemblage of the great and the good would be impressive, if it were not that they all (with two exceptions) seem far too important to attend to the concerns of any individual subscriber, they do not (with two exceptions) have email addresses, and in fact the collectives - the Council and Board - do not have collective email addresses. I do not know (although I would welcome enlightenment) what the intentions of any part of this conglomerate structure are for the future online presence of the CA. I could, I think, be forgiven for believing that neither do they.

I was intending to add a reasoned reflection on the possible future of the CA, but what would be the point?

I'll propose a radical thought. Which? is so far from being a useful expression of consumer interests, and is so incompetent in what it does choose to do, that the quicker it fails the better. Its perpetuation will merely delay the creation of a new and better organisation that can properly defend the rights and interests of individuals against the encroachments of governments and other over mighty powers.

That is, I hope, an overstatement, but I think we have reached the point where its rebuttal requires something more than platitude.


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