Independent consumer support (2019:7)
Independent consumer support is to allow citizens to safeguard their rights and inform them of their obligations as consumers. The Government has commissioned the Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) to assess whether the support being provided to consumers in the form of impartial information and guidance is appropriate and effective. The commission has been based on the assumption that consumers' need for support may vary.
Several actors provide independent consumer support
Independent support to consumers is the support that an impartial actor provides, i.e. an actor without its own interests in the advice being given. Our commission of inquiry has been based on a survey of the consumer support provided by government agencies and municipal consumer services. We have also taken into account the consumer support from the industry-affiliated consumer bureaus and from organisations in civil society.
The Swedish Consumer Agency established Hallå konsument in 2015
The Swedish Consumer Agency offers consumer support directly to consumers through several channels, of which the information service Hallå konsument (Hello consumer) is the most widely used. When Hallå konsument started in 2015, it entailed an expansion of the state's commitment to independent consumer support.
Consumer guidance is a voluntary undertaking for the municipalities
Offering consumer advice is a voluntary service for the municipalities. When Hallå konsument was established, the Government indicated that the municipalities would play an important role in offering support to consumers who require personal meetings, or who have issues that require investigation or have a local connection. The Consumer Agency is responsible for supporting the municipalities through information and training.
A total of 219 municipalities (75 per cent) offered consumer guidance in 2018. The number of municipalities offering the service has varied over time, and the scope and organisation of the activities vary greatly between the municipalities. The large variation has been a challenge for the Consumer Agency in its work with supporting the municipal consumer services.
Hallå konsument has changed the consumer support in several ways
Since the start, Hallå konsument has developed to become a central part of independent consumer support. Awareness of the service has increased each year, and the users express a high degree of satisfaction with the help they receive. Other actors that offer consumer support also consider Hallå konsument to be a positive addition and find the collaboration with the Consumer Agency in the work with the service to be generally effective.
The high demand, the fact that the Government has given additional commissions to the Consumer Agency, and the agency's high level of service has resulted in the Consumer Agency expending more resources on Hallå konsument than was intended by the Government.
Following the establishment of Hallå konsument by the Consumer Agency, the number of municipalities offering consumer guidance has dropped significantly. The municipalities that have retained their consumer guidance have fewer cases to deal with. However, it is only a small proportion of the municipalities that have used this relief to focus their consumer guidance to complement the support provided by Hallå konsument.
The consumer support reaches many but not all groups
Different groups have different needs for consumer support. Today, there are several options for support in consumer issues for those consumers who find information and advice via telephone and digital channels to be sufficient. Hallå konsument has made consumer support more accessible for many consumers. The consumer bureaus also reach a target group that can use information and guidance via telephone or digital channels.
However, there is a group of consumers who will probably continue to need to meet with a consumer advisor. These are often the same groups who are also vulnerable as consumers. The municipality is the main actor for those consumers who need support through personal meetings. The majority of the municipalities that provide their own consumer service offer this opportunity. But relatively little time is devoted to personal meetings, and few municipalities work actively to reach out to those consumers who are in need of such support.
Many municipalities also procure consumer guidance from another municipality, meaning that the distance to the nearest consumer advisor can be long. In addition, consumers in those municipalities without a consumer service have no opportunity whatsoever to receive help by way of a personal meeting.
The increased responsibility assumed by the state has been positive but has led to a reduction in municipal guidance
Statskontoret's assessment is that independent consumer support overall has become more efficient and effective for a majority of the consumers after the state assumed greater responsibility for the area by establishing Hallå konsument. However, establishing Hallå konsument has also contributed to far fewer municipalities offering consumer guidance. This means that the support in parts of the country has deteriorated for those consumers requiring personal meetings with a consumer advisor to receive help.
The Government should therefore consider certain measures to ensure that independent consumer support becomes more appropriate and effective:
- The Government can consider whether consumer guidance should be a voluntary service. If the Government wants to ensure that the municipalities provide consumer guidance and target these activities in a specific way, this assignment needs to be regulated through legislation.
- If the Government does not want to legislate consumer guidance, the Government needs to otherwise clarify the purpose of consumer guidance and how it can serve as a complement to the state support. The Government can for example instruct the Consumer Agency to develop guidelines for what the municipal consumer service should prioritise.
- The Government can also provide the Consumer Agency with clearer guidance regarding what support the agency is to give the municipalities in order to ensure that the municipal consumer guidance achieves the purpose intended by the Government.
- Hallå konsument can also take greater responsibility for enhanced consumer support within the framework of the activities and the channels they have at their disposal today.
- Furthermore, the Government can use its funding to civil society to encourage organisations within this area to increase their efforts in relation to consumers with special needs for support.