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UKRN publishes follow-up report on water and energy company data sharing to support vulnerable consumers

How safe and secure sharing of data between water and energy companies is helping customers in vulnerable circumstances

For consumers in vulnerable circumstances accessing the support they need across multiple providers can be time consuming and stressful. Safe and secure sharing of data across water and energy companies, with customer consent, can reduce this burden and enable companies to offer those consumers seamless priority support.

Today Ofgem, Ofwat and the UKRN have published a report showing energy and water companies are making progress in putting this kind of data sharing in place. However, rolling it out across England and Wales will require continued focus to overcome challenges around customer consent, staff training and data quality. The report also challenges energy and water companies to work together more to improve services for vulnerable consumers, and regulators to explore the possibility of extending these kinds of initiatives to other sectors.

Using data to identify consumers who need support

Water and energy companies provide a range of free services to support customers in vulnerable circumstances, such as large print bills, support to read a meter, or ensuring consistent supply for those who depend on electricity or water for medical equipment at home. Ofgem, Ofwat and the UKRN want to see improved take up of these services and make sure they provide high quality, tailored support.

The companies need to be able to better identify customers in vulnerable circumstances and tailor support. Data sharing can help the companies to easily do this. So last year Ofwat and Ofgem, through the UK Regulators Network (UKRN), published a report calling on energy and water companies to work with third parties to identify who could benefit from these services and, with the customers’ consent, share this data. Today, we have published a follow up report on progress.

Since our last report, a joint working group established by Water UK and the Energy Networks Association (ENA) has been working to implement arrangements for sharing the data of customers who are eligible for priority services between all energy and water companies, by April 2020.

Significant progress has been made. Water UK and the ENA have run a data sharing pilot between Electricity North West and United Utilities in the North West of England. Data of around 2,000 customers across both companies who are eligible for priority services was shared between the two companies – 80 per cent of which were new priority services register (PSR) registrations for United Utilities.

The pilot proved that data sharing can remove the onus currently on the customer to register for additional support with multiple companies. It also showed that data sharing helps companies go further to help vulnerable customers. For example, during the pilot, when United Utilities registered one of ENW’s customers for its PSR, they found that the customer was eligible for a social tariff, which saved them money on water bills.

Next steps to ensure progress

The ENA and Water UK are now looking to roll out the data sharing scheme across England and Wales. Doing this will require continued focus to overcome the challenges identified in the pilot. A key one is that staff must be trained to clearly explain the benefits of data sharing to customers and they must be able to reassure customers that their data will be protected. However, companies will need to balance the human touch with using IT software so they can more easily share data, rather than sending it manually as was done in the trial. They must also work out better ways to ensure customer data is matched between companies. This will avoid situations where customers are contacted simply to verify details such as their name and address.

The report also encourages regulators to look at the wider benefits of data sharing. For example, exploring the possibility of extending data sharing to other sectors and considering ways in which we can simplify sign-up to services across sectors.

The report also calls on energy and water companies to be more ambitious in how they identify and support consumers in vulnerable consumers, including increasing the amount of collaborative working across companies and with partners from the voluntary and community sectors. Industry must quicken pace and step up to embrace the learnings of this project in designing hassle free and high-quality support for their customers.

If you are interested in this work or in engaging with us further, please contact Adam Schwarz, UKRN Manager on adam.ukrn@ssro.gov.uk

You can read the full report here: Making better use of data to identify customers in vulnerable situations: A follow-up report.