The dream of a shared PSR is within grasp

For years the utilities sector has talked of the need to join up vulnerability data across the sector and beyond. Yet the vision of a shared priority services register remains out of reach. Senior figures from across the industry share their views on how we can accelerate progress.

“We’ve been talking about the same thing for years now but what’s actually stopping us?”

A senior figure at an electricity distribution network operator (DNO) summed up a fascinating debate, hosted by Utility Week and Google Cloud, on the barriers to a shared nationwide, multi-sector priority services register.

It is a vision that has been jointly held across the utilities sector for many years but the key takeaway from this conversation – which brought together executives responsible for customer service, data and asset investment from across the industry – was that many of the hurdles have already been cleared.

The aim of this debate was to discuss the broader role of data and insight in tackling the current cost of living crisis. However, the galvanizing topic of conversation was the need to ensure data on vulnerable customers is shared across a variety of stakeholders – from utilities to government departments, councils, health services and charities.

Utilities have an obligation to hold a priority services register (PSR), which records the details of vulnerable customers, principally so that support can be targeted in the event of a supply failure or other emergency.

However, these lists remain siloed across the sector and while an energy supplier may be aware of a vulnerable customer, this information may not be shared with the relevant DNO, water company or local support services.

Where are we now?

In recent years, there have been huge strides in overcoming obstacles to a shared PSR, namely the consent for data sharing and the interoperability of the information.

One of the pioneering projects cited at the roundtable was the collaboration between UK Power Networks (UKPN) and Thames Water, which has now incorporated a number of other bodies. This has led to UKPN developing a Utility Affordability Framework, which aims to provide a joint approach to identifying vulnerable customers and providing support.

Similarly, Northumbrian Water is leading a project as part of Ofwat’s Innovation Fund that will involve designing, building and delivering a hub to securely host data on customers in vulnerable circumstances, so that when submitted once, the data can then be shared with other relevant utilities.

Despite positive signs of progress from these and other projects, they still exist in silos and we remain a long way from an industry-wide agreement to share data on vulnerable customers.

One participant at the roundtable noted: “I find myself in two separate worlds. There are industry-wide groups where we all get together and it takes nine months to appoint a project manager to head up a piece of work. Then the other side is that, off our own bat, we just get a bunch of people in a room and we say, here’s the problem, what’s the solution. An example would be that water companies identify the addresses of vulnerable customers one way, energy networks do it another way. How do we marry up the data? You get some clever people, some incredible dev ops teams from water and energy, in a room and it takes them 10 minutes to go – ok, there’s your solution.”

Another senior executive concurred that the technical solutions are all at our fingertips and that the challenge remains to join up the efforts.

They said: “We spend too long in this industry trying to get consensus and perfection when what we need is speed and the next best thing.”

One participant who has worked within government pointed to a wealth of data that is already shared between departments but remains unavailable to utilities. They cited information held by the Department for Work & Pensions and the Office for National Statistics as valuable indicators not just of vulnerability but of the potential to tip into this bracket.

As one industry figure put it: “The challenge we ultimately face is to build a system that can view a customer and say, you’re not vulnerable today, you might not be vulnerable tomorrow but the next day, you might be. That’s hugely valuable because there’s a while suite of support out there that can be targeted to avoid that customer ever getting to that cliff edge. We can use the data to intervene before it really gets serious.”

Barriers to success

To return to that headline challenge, what is actually stopping us from joining up that support?

Nervousness around GDPR was one common example from companies around the table, with a water company executive saying: “We’re just not agile enough in terms of our data and so our risk aversion in that space is sufficient that it will stop the art of the possible there.”

Another issue is customers being unwilling to identify themselves as vulnerable in the first place.

As one network executive put it: “No one wants to be vulnerable. It’s always something that happens to someone else. But perhaps that’s a reflection that we’re not approaching it in the right way. We need to find a way to say, our data shows you might need this support, do you want it? And make it one click or one phone call away.”

The key to success in this situation is trust. For the representatives from DNOs and gas networks this presented a problem. Without a direct billing relationship with the customer, it is difficult to establish the connection that can open up a conversation about specific support needs.

A director at a gas network said that often the only time the benefits of a PSR are made clear to customers is during a supply interruption.

“It’s when they see a hot plate being delivered to a neighbour that they want to understand, how did they get that and how do I get it? Great, we can have the conversation there and get them on the list. But it would be so much better if we could communicate that benefit before it’s actually needed.”

With clear consensus in the room that the industry is on the tipping point of joining up support on vulnerable customers, talk turned to the practicalities of making this a reality.

One participant shared the view that data privacy issues could easily be overcome, adding “that’s just some rules we’d have to build in”. They said the key decision is who should own the data, stressing that it should be a trusted organisation.

The utilities were clear that it should not be them, with one saying: “We can build it, we can show others how to join but then we can step back and someone else can own it. The problem is that in a world of paralysis, nobody wants to lead.”

The role of government

It was generally agreed that government needs to play a central role, with one DNO executive saying: “It needs to be somebody neutral. Someone where it’s clear there’s no risk of exploiting the customer.”

In order to convince government of the validity of such a project, it was agreed that clear evidence would need to be provided from regional trials – ideally in diverse areas. A business case would need to be developed, to show the Treasury how this would benefit customers and how ultimately this makes good economic sense as well.

As an example of how national projects have been scaled up from local innovation with the support of government, the group discussed the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR). This project to create a digital map of underground pipes and cables grew out of Northumbrian Water’s Innovation Festival. After a successful pilot, the project secured government funding and partnership with the Geospatial Commission to scale it up.

One roundtable participant who had been involved with the project said the buy-in from the leadership of Northumbrian, as well as other key stakeholders was key in giving civil servants confidence in the project. “On paper, it looked good but it needed that evidence on the ground that it could work.”

It was agreed that now is the right time to pitch to government how valuable a shared PSR could be and that during a cost of living crisis, utilities have valuable insight into emerging vulnerabilities that is not being fully utilised.

As a water company executive put it: “A cancelled direct debit can be a really powerful signal. If people are defaulting on their water bills, there’s a chance to get in there and see what support is available before that leads to the energy bills not being paid, the council tax and so on.”

The roundtable ended with a call to action – to take this consensus forward and start to build a plan to present to government. It was agreed that a stakeholder map of utilities’ interactions with government was needed in the first place, to identify which departments should be approached, with the next step being to work together to identify a set of rules for a shared PSR. Meanwhile, learnings from the projects currently underway would be shared, with organisations not represented at the roundtable invited to show their support.

An energy retailer summed up the momentum built during the roundtable.

“It really does seem like everyone is pushing in the same direction –  and it’s towards this idea of central repository of data on vulnerable customers. Anything is better than what we have now. And if it’s going to take five years to build it, then better to start now than talk for another five years before we can even begin.”

Utility Week aims to progress the actions raised over the coming months. To get involved please contact [email protected].