Jennifer Huxley and Carly Hyde, QCOSS.
As energy markets become increasingly complex, the role of community organisations in empowering the people they serve is coming to the fore. This was evidenced in the recent ‘Switched On Communities’ program, a cross-sector collaboration between Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS), energy provider AGL and the Queensland Government.
‘Switched On Communities’ is an important component of the Queensland Government’s campaign to educate and inform consumers following electricity price deregulation in South East Queensland which was implemented from 1 July 2016. It is vital that all households, particularly low-income and disadvantaged consumers, are informed and able to take advantage of the benefits of the competitive energy market.
The Switched On Communities program was funded by AGL and Department of Energy and Water Supply (DEWS). The program provided grants to community organisations to assist people who experience disadvantage or financial hardship to get better outcomes in the competitive energy market. Grants of up to $100,000 were made available to not-for-profit organisations in South East Queensland with projects to be delivered in 2016-17.
Nine community organisations received grants to develop and roll-out education and advocacy programs to help their clients understand energy bills, access concessions and hardship programs, and actively participate in the energy market. Over eight months the participating organisations made amazing headway, tailoring programs to cater to the specific needs of the individuals and families in their communities. This included small, geographically defined groups, through to broader demographics.
Overall, over 4,000 people were supported via face-to-face workshops, 900 people received individual face-to-face sessions, and over 600 received advice and support over the phone. In additional, well over 30,000 people were reached through the distribution of information kits at community events, shopping centre stalls, local markets and through email and social media channels.
Most organisations reported that one-on-one consultations were the most effective method of making swift, positive changes to people’s immediate understanding of and participation in the energy market. Other successful approaches included interactive workshops with games to engage people with a disability (Queenslanders with Disability Network), a free 1300-phone service (Salvation Army), multi-lingual materials and workshops for culturally and linguistically diverse communities (MultiLink), as well as digital materials, peer educator models and in-home energy education and assessment visits.
The feedback from all nine participating community organisations was that they were surprised by how complex the energy market is, with most clients struggling to understand their energy bills and experiencing difficulties communicating with retailers. This was for various reasons, including language barriers, literacy issues, digital exclusion, disability and confusing terminology on bills. Many people were distrustful about engaging their retailer and valued the ability to access trusted and independent support from a local community service.
While each of the ‘Switched On Communities’ projects made inroads, they all reported the need for a program like this on an ongoing basis, and an end to the stop-start nature of funding for energy programs targeting low income households. There was also a strong push for it to be expanded to include telephone, internet and other bills.
The Switched On Communities program demonstrated how successful a cross-sector collaboration can be in making genuine, lasting change to the lives of those who need it most. It also showed that with a little support from industry and government, the community sector can understand and address the depth of the issues people experience with energy bills, hardship and the flow on impacts of these issues to other aspects of people’s lives. As the energy sector continues to evolve, ongoing support is essential to prevent disadvantaged individuals and families being left behind.
The Switched On Communities program finished in June 2017. QCOSS is currently compiling a final report on the program outcomes which is due for release at the end of July.