The Consumer Environment: Regulation and Research: Discussion of Three Papers

Ivan L. Preston, University of Wisconsin
ABSTRACT - This is a discussion based on the following three papers:
[ to cite ]:
Ivan L. Preston (1979) ,"The Consumer Environment: Regulation and Research: Discussion of Three Papers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 505-507.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 505-507

THE CONSUMER ENVIRONMENT: REGULATION AND RESEARCH: DISCUSSION OF THREE PAPERS

Ivan L. Preston, University of Wisconsin

ABSTRACT -

This is a discussion based on the following three papers:

John L. Evans, C. Dennis Anderson, and L. G. McCabe, "Consumer Research Inputs Into Public Policy Decision Making: The Role of Canada's Consumer Research and Evaluation Branch."

Marc A. Grainer, Kathleen A. McEvoy, and Donald W. King, "Consumer Problems and Complaints: A National View."

Steven E. Permut, "Research on Consumer Information: Public Sector Perspectives."

The papers are evaluated and compared; the general topic area they encompass is discussed.

INTRODUCTION

The thread that links these papers is the use of consumer research in the identification and solution of consumer problems by governmental regulatory units and/or marketplace participants who are involved with the problems.

The Evans et al paper is focussed most precisely on this topic; it discusses the development and operation of a Canadian unit called the Consumer Research and Evaluation Branch. Creation of the unit has provided the bureaucratic resources and procedures for identifying problems and either conducting research or arranging for the services of outside researchers. The scope of development described in the paper suggests that the unit may be more advanced in some respects that any comparable unit developed in the United States.

The Grainer et al paper is an example of the kind of research that is relevant to, and might be commissioned by, a government or non-government organization that wishes to identify and solve consumer problems. It reports a survey of types of problems that consumers experience, the damages they sustain therefrom, what they do in response, and how satisfied they are with the outcome. Identification of problems in this way is one of the natural starting points for those dealing with consumer affairs.

The Permut paper inquires into the attitudes toward consumer research held by officials of a variety of public and non-profit organizations concerned with consumer problems; it asks what research Journals and what kinds of outside research advisors they find useful. The emphasis is on research done principally for researchers' own reasons and so typically having no explicitly--intended application to the specific problems which these officials must confront. Not surprisingly, attitudes toward such research are not highly favorable.

THE EVANS ET AL PAPER

This is not a research paper in the typical sense, so there is no point in evaluating it as such. Rather, it is a summary of the decisions and actions taken by the Canadian government in creating the Consumer Research and Evaluation Branch of its Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada department. The description is clear and thorough, although I would like to mention later some areas where even more explanatory material might usefully have been provided.

The development of the Branch is described first within the mandate of Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada to create programs to protect and promote the interests of the consumer. The mandate included a specific authorization to conduct research, and the authors do a nice job of explaining developments that have strengthened the perceived need for research in recent years.

The paper then specifies in detail the mandate of the Consumer Research and Evaluation Branch, which is to identify and analyze problems and to develop, implement, and evaluate plans for remedial action. I am puzzled by the statement that the Branch actually creates and carries out remedial action; would not the role of a research unit be restricted to providing information for other people to use in implementation? Perhaps the authors have inadvertently misstated this point, or perhaps things are done differently in Canada.

Most interesting to this reviewer was the section, "The Conduct of Consumer Research," which describes the Branch's resident researchers along with its efforts to facilitate outside consumer research and to keep in touch with outside researchers. The authors describe the resident group of fifteen researchers as "small," but this reviewer does not know of that large a group of researchers in any U.S. agency devoted to consumer affairs. It may be that the Canadians are showing foresighted leadership in taking research decisions away from the lawyers and giving them to researchers. They seem also to be doing an outstanding job with the newsletters, seminars, and other means they use to inform and interact with outside researchers.

The Content of Responses to Consumer Problems

For the most part the paper's topic is bureaucratic organization rather than consumer problems per se. Since some readers may be interested more in the content than the structure of bureaucratic responses to problems, it is appropriate that certain assumptions about the nature of consumer problems are discussed. Principally, a comparison is noted between legislative-regulatory solutions and voluntary self-adjustment solutions made by the participants in the marketplace.

The suggestion is made that public policy research ought to examine what kinds of problems should be subjected to each of these types of solutions. One might also study what kinds of adjustments members of the marketplace might reasonably be expected to make voluntarily, or refuse to make.

The authors observe that prevailing pressures nowadays are supporting the seeking of voluntary solutions rather than solutions imposed by legislators and regulators. This reviewer would have enjoyed seeing much more discussion on that topic. The paper also states that prevailing pressures operate against a long-term research perspective, as against seeking short-term solutions to specific narrow issues. Again, further discussion would have been valuable.

The paper is very useful for ACR readers in providing a summary of new developments in the interaction between consumer researchers and consumer affairs officials in government.

THE GRAINER ET AL PAPER

The greatest strength of this study of the nature of consumer complaints lies in its contribution to correcting what the authors refer to as the "rhetoric of industry" on the topic. Industry, they say, represents consumer complaints as being typically few and not serious, and as being almost always resolved to the consumer's full satisfaction. The data show otherwise.

The study thus provides not only a much different picture of the nature of consumer complaints, but also illustrates nicely the need for research that underlies the development of the Canadian research unit described in the Evans paper.

There are both strengths and weaknesses in the fact that the study is closely related in topic to the earlier Indiana University and Center for the Study of Responsive Law studies. The weakness is that the essential findings alluded to above were already revealed in the earlier studies. The strength is that the present study used different, and in some respects better, methods of measurement, Attractively, the results correspond to those of the other studies sufficiently to support a belief in the validity of all.

Methodology

Attention to methodology, particularly with respect to differences among the three studies, takes up a considerable portion of the paper. Some readers may feel it is too much; others may appreciate the way in which such detail allows them to evaluate and compare.

Some of the emphasis on methodology is apparently due to the authors' desire to demonstrate the superiority of their method, for which, owing primarily to their employment of a representative national sample, they make a persuasive case. However, they perhaps do not acknowledge sufficiently the drawbacks of a method that obtained reports largely restricted to problems significant enough that consumers would recall them without being aided by a listing of products and services (probably explaining why automobile and appliance problems, mostly concerning repairs, were cited so often). Although this method is probably not inferior to the others, it is not obviously superior, either.

A methodological decision that surely seems regrettable is that we are given no demographic breakdowns, thus no indication of whether those households with different types of problems or different levels of complaint resolution, etc., may have consisted of different types of people. Nor are we given the cross-tabulations that would show whether different products or services produced different complaint profiles.

On the whole, however, the data are valuable and the study is an excellent example of the type of contribution research can make in the effort to identify and solve consumer problems.

THE PERMUT PAPER

While the other two papers have shown us a governmental effort to obtain research, and an example of the type of research that might be obtained, the Permut paper examines the current use of existing research on consumer information disclosure. The subjects were officials of government and nonprofit organizations concerned with information disclosure and other consumer problems; they were asked about their use of various journals and various types of consultants, and about the extent to which they feel research contributes to policymaking.

The thrust of the inquiry was toward existing research, which means research done for its authors' own purposes and without being intended necessarily to apply directly to any current problem in the "real world." Most members of ACR probably would anticipate that policymakers would find such research to be overly abstract and theoretical, and so of doubtful value. The obtained responses confirm that expectation solidly, and this finding is the essence of the study's contribution.

Whether or not researchers should regret these findings is a question that obviously follows. We might sympathize with the failure to please policymakers, or alternately we might insist that researchers have the right to choose topics to suit themselves, not others, and that policymakers should commission their own research aimed at their own problems. Such discussion, however, extends beyond the scope of the present study, which reports simply what the policymakers said.

A Problem of Interpretation

The study produces some difficulties in interpreting what the policymakers meant by what they said. Of greatest concern to this reviewer is the question of how well equipped such persons are to read and utilize existing research. The critical research question (see Table 2) begins, "Given your own experience and/or knowledge of research dealing with consumer information disclosure issues..." Well, what actually is the experience of such people about research? Furthermore, whose experience are we talking about, anyway, because there is excellent reason to believe that such questionnaires often are filled out by subordinates of the addressee?

The present study, therefore, might reasonably have included questions about how much the responding party ("if not addressee, please so state") actually knew about consumer research--was he trained in it, had he published any research himself, etc.? My own opinion, in lieu of such information, is that the questionnaire's respondents probably were rather low on such knowledge. Further, I would surmise that the lower the research sophistication, the more negative the attitudes toward research. Thus a possible alternate explanation of those reported negative attitudes.

A number of other methodological questions, involving such things as sampling, statistical analysis, choice of question, and interpretation of findings, might be raised about this study. The results, however, are essentially valuable for the important issues they raise.

RESEARCHERS AND REGULATORS: THE EXPANDING INTERFACE

There is good reason to believe that the interaction of consumer researchers with regulators and other policy-makers will continue to increase in the future as it has in the recent past. Research papers such as those discussed here are therefore most welcome as a means of contributing to the success of such interaction.

What this reviewer would like to see as a follow-up to such contributions would be a detailed study of the participation of research and researchers in regulatory affairs. I have recorded briefly elsewhere some aspects of my own participation in Federal Trade Commission cases in which deceptive advertising is charged, with emphasis on the problems involved when researchers work with lawyers. However, a definitive look at all features of such interaction has yet to be written.

Some of the inherent problems are alluded to in the papers examined above. For example, the Grainer paper discusses methodological differences among three problems, which brings up the problem of persons untrained in research attempting to make legal judgments about research content. I have personally found FTC lawyers to be bright and quick in grasping explanations of such matters, but have also noted that such a learning process is typically piecemeal, informal, and incomplete.

The Need For Training

What needs to be created, therefore, are training sessions that can do the job more formally and thoroughly. The trainees should include not only those who write and prosecute rules, but also judges, both within the regulatory agencies and on the appellate courts. Staff attorneys who deal with researchers have considerable opportunity in working sessions to acquire detailed information on the background of relevant questions, but judges interact with researchers only within the severe confines of a hearing, which restricts discussion to the specific facts of the case at hand. Yet it is the judges who make the ultimate decisions about the probative value, as they call it, of research studies.

Nor should the training sessions be restricted to the regulators. Researchers need to learn about the law, and about the political realities behind the law, Just as badly as lawyers need to learn about research (see Permut's survey questions on this point). One might argue, in fact, that the researcher's need for orientation is even greater than the lawyer's, because the interaction takes place on the lawyer's "turf." It is his game that is being played.

Knowing the Differing "World Views"

Training of lawyers and researchers to understand each other should include not merely techniques, but also, as Permut discusses, some understanding about the differing "world views" of the two occupations. When Scott Ward and Dan Wackman testified about children's advertising before the FTC in 1971, Commissioner Mary Gardiner Jones illustrated these differing views by asking for an action recommendation. The researchers answered, "More research is needed before we can say"; the Commissioner said, "I have to act now."

Ms. Jones implied that researchers, if they were to be helpful to her, would have to be willing to make recommendations under conditions of greater uncertainty than they were accustomed to experiencing. Whether researchers should do that, and how they might do it, might itself by the topic of a useful research study.

Elsewhere, Permut asserts that the participation of the researcher in the activities of regulators and policy-makers should be the researcher's responsibility. This presumably is because researchers via their methodology have greater access to the facts of a case or problem, and therefore should accept the obligation to assure that the chosen solution is properly based on those facts. It is a sensible analysis, but I would like also to point out that there is no way a researcher can participate in decision-making without the consent of the regulators or policymakers. Only the latter can make the decision to utilize existing research findings and/ or commission appropriate new research.

It might follow, therefore, that the researcher's main responsibility is better defined as being that of convincing the regulators and policymakers that research is their responsibility. In any event, the question of responsibility is an area that merits more study than it has been given thus far. One aspect of such study might be to examine the shift from minimal to considerable interaction with behavioral researchers that has occurred at the FTC over the past seven years.

Education Versus Regulation

Another area that deserves further study is that of the relative attractions of consumer education and regulation as the best choice for responding to consumer problems. This topic is mentioned several times in the Evans paper; the authors report that there are reasons today for seeking non-regulatory solutions, of which consumer education is an important kind.

The issue of regulation versus education is fascinating because of the conflicting assumptions it involves about the basic nature of the human being. Proponents of education support the assumption that the consumer is educable, not only in having the natural ability to become educated but also in having the time and money it takes, and perhaps most importantly, the inclination. They also assume that education is enough to solve consumer problems, because the consumer upon learning the relevant facts will act to eliminate any problem.

Proponents of regulation, on the other hand, assume either that the consumer is not educable on a given point or else assure that even if maximally educated he will be unable to eliminate the problem unless alterations in the conditions of the marketplace are imposed by the regulators.

These conflicting views produce still another area in which research can contribute; it can determine in given cases whether consumer education is sufficient or whether regulation is necessary, thereby having an important impact on the direction taken by public policy.

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