HomeRegional NewsCentral AfricaIncomprehensible utility bills – could be empowerment tools

Incomprehensible utility bills – could be empowerment tools

Sarah Slabbert,
Director, Sarah
Slabbert Associates
2 April 2012 – One municipality in South Africa admitted that some meters have not been read for over a year. With rising utility tariffs, the South African consumer is under mounting pressure. Add to this the fact that utility bills are for all practical purposes unintelligible, with consumers being confronted with figures few seem to understand.

A research company, Sarah Slabbert Associates, recently did a study for the Water Research Commission of South Africa into how this country’s utility bills compare with that of the rest of the world and to structure guidelines for the standardisation of accounts.

“The South African public is paying huge amounts of money for utilities without always understanding how the amounts have been calculated,” director Sarah Slabbert says, confirming what many a homeowner has experienced. “The utility bills of South African municipalities are, for the most part, incomprehensible with wide fluctuations in the reported use which can seldom be explained satisfactorily when queried.”

“The majority of accounts do not identify numbers as Rands, a meter reading, consumption or an unknown code for office use only. The result is that the onus is on the consumer to try and figure out what all the numbers on the bill mean. This does not serve customers and render many accounts incomprehensible. The use of non-standard abbreviations and unexplained acronyms and symbols, which are common to South African municipal accounts, exacerbates the confusion.

“Meters are not read every month, and estimates are then made. Inaccurate meters and inaccurate meter readings are common problems affecting the integrity of data.  Some municipalities give consumers the opportunity to phone or send in their meter readings.  Consumers do not receive any incentive for this service. Municipal officials of smaller municipalities admitted that this information is captured by hand and could lead to data errors.”

Slabbert points out that the municipal bill offers a unique opportunity for municipalities to inform, educate and influence their customers and to establish their communication as clear, accurate and customer friendly.

“We developed a tool to analyse municipal bills based on local and international regulations, local and international best practice and plain language guidelines.  The tool translates qualitative criteria into measurable categories to calculate an index score which can be used to assess and compare municipal bills.

“The five categories measure the language used as well as the layout of the utility bill; the legal requirements relating to value added tax and credit; the integrity of the account and information to help the consumer manage resources. We also looked at international best practises. Unfortunately our utility bills do not compare well at all with the best international examples.”

She says Australia has had huge successes with utility bills that show the average consumption of the area in which the consumer lives. “Once a consumer knows how their usage compares with that of their neighbours, they adapt their own consumption patterns to fit in with the average. South Africa’s Tshwane Metro gives such a comparison. Such information helps consumers to manage scarce resources such as water and energy, effectively. If a sudden extraordinary peak is indicated on the graph, it could be an indication of a leakage or other problem and it can be addressed immediately. In some of the countries we looked at, including Singapore, North America and Australia, a red flag is added to the account when consumption is higher than average.

“Without sufficient information, the client is disempowered which leads to resentment and an unwillingness to pay.  The authorities should make it as easy as possible for the client. Poor clients should have an option to pay via cell phones.  People in poorer areas experience many extra expenses when they pay their accounts in person. They have to make use of public transport and stand in long queues – sometimes for hours – which all carry a monetary value.  Rwanda is a good example of a country where payments via cell phone have been implemented and work well.”  

Slabbert will be a speaker in the water track at African Utility Week, to be held at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg from 21-24 May. This annual conference and exhibition which draws international speakers and exhibitors is the most important exhibition of its kind held on the African continent.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl: conference director: water, says Slabbert’s presentation takes place during the session Water as a commodity – managing public perceptions. The focus is on increasing service delivery, revenue collection and overall management of water suppliers with the water users as an integral part of the water chain. African Utility Week will focus on all aspects of the utility service sector on the continent with 10,000 square metres of exhibition space and dedicated tracks on:  Metering, Renewables, Water, Large Industry, Infrastructure Investment, Transmission & Distribution/Smart Grids, Generation and Waste Management.