In March 2019 Involve worked with Northern Gas Networks (NGN) to design and deliver their first NGN Public Panel. This is a new approach to public engagement for NGN that brought together a 'mini-public' from across the network's areas for a three-day deliberative process.
To our knowledge, this is the first time an energy company in the UK has used a deliberative 'mini-public' as part of their business planning activities. We therefore welcomed NGN's willingness to try something new in their efforts to embed customers' perceptions and priorities within their strategic business plan.
Background to the project
As an energy network company NGN is required to have its business plan and the engagement they have undertaken to inform it, approved by Ofgem (the government regulator for gas and electricity markets) at the start of each price-control period. The NGN Public Panel was one of several key strategic engagement activities undertaken by NGN between November 2018 and June 2019 to enable customers and other stakeholder groups to contribute to the development of the company’s business plan for 2021-2026.
In choosing to convene the NGN Public Panel as a ‘mini-public’ NGN were ensuring they engaged in depth with a wide variety of customers, including those who did not generally interact with the company. This was particularly important for aspects of NGN’s planning where there are no simple ‘right’ decisions but instead allocating resources involves making trade-offs between different priorities.
Involve worked alongside the Stakeholder Relations team from NGN to design and deliver the meetings of the NGN Public Panel. These consisted of three day-long Saturday sessions held a few weeks apart in March and April 2019.
The Panel was made up of 50 randomly selected people from the local area, chosen to be broadly representative of the local population. Of the 48 who attended the first meeting 43 continued for all three sessions, a retention rate of 90%.
The Panel key task was to explore a question at the heart of NGN’s business plan:
“How does NGN find the right balance between price and service which is fair for everyone and which meets customers’ aspirations for the company?
The objective was to gain clarity on:
- Domestic customers' investment preferences
- To measure the importance placed upon different performance areas
- To measure support for different business plan options
- To understand where consensus exists and to capture dissenting views
At the first meeting members of the Panel were introduces to the five performance areas for the business:
- Environmental impacts
- Customer service
- Social initiatives
At the conclusion of this meeting Panel members co-created the focus for their two future meetings by identifying the performance area or issues they felt were most important for the public to have input into. They were particularly interested in discussing how NGN approached mitigating their environmental impact and whether there were improvements needed in different parts of the customer journey, including planned and unplanned supply interruptions. In the final meeting they also drew conclusions on how best to balance resourcing improvements across these different performance areas.
The results from these Public Panel meetings provided NGN with new insights into the aspects of their performance and operations that customers value most and the expectations that customers have for the future of NGN.
“I like NGN’s sense of responsibility and going the extra mile”
“[I valued] the ability to provide my opinion and know that it is being listened to”
“Very interesting. My views have changed”
“I liked the process of discussing the subject areas with people from diverse perspectives.”
“[Liked] the atmosphere and how professional the experts were open to challenge and ready to answer questions”
“Great how we all worked together as a team.”
After the success of the first Public Panel, NGN decided to explore how the Panel could play an ongoing role in their business planning. To this end they decided to reconvene the Public Panel for a one-day session in November 2019.
Of the 43 previous members contacted about participating in stage two, 35 expressed interest in returning. This is a willingness to return rate of 81%. Supplementary targeted on-street recruitment was undertaken to bring the Panel membership back to being representative of the area. On the day 47 participants attended, 31 returning members and 16 newly recruited members.
After an introductory session informing members about how the Panel’s recommendations had been taken on board by NGN the meeting focused on two specific programmes NGN is in the process of developing: ‘Making Every Contact Count’ and the ‘Hardship Fund’. Members also explored the idea of what role an ongoing NGN Public Panel could have and its potential relationship with the Customer Engagement Group.
The final report for stage one can be found here.
The final report for stage two of the NGN Public Panel will be available soon.