Monday 25 January 2016

How to Save the MCS from Irrelevance

Too Many Cooks at the Microgeneration Certification Scheme

In 1964 a 28 year old woman called Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked in front of her apartment building as she returned from work.  According to accounts in newspapers, the attack lasted at least half an hour and, despite her repeated cries for help, 38 people who either heard or saw the attack did not intervene or even call the police until after the attacker had fled and Genovese was dead.


Although it later emerged that the number of witnesses was exaggerated in the newspaper reports, psychologists have now proven that the more people who are around, the less likely it is that someone will act to stop something bad happening.  They call it the ‘Bystander Effect'.

For example in a classic experiment by Latane and Darley, subjects were placed in a waiting room either on their own or with others present.  As they sat there, the researchers had organised for the room to start filling with smoke.

When the subjects were on their own in the room, 75% reported the smoke to the organiser.  When there was three subjects in the room, the smoke was reported only 38% of the time.

One of the explanations for the Bystander Effect is termed “Dilution of Responsibility”.  The more people there are around, the more likely you are to leave it to someone else to do the right thing.  Obviously if everyone thinks the same, then no one does anything.

Which brings me on to the Microgeneration Certification Scheme

As the recent Feed in Tariff review unfolded, I heard many people wonder what the purpose of MCS would be in a post-subsidy world.  “If there’s not a Feed in Tariff, why would anyone ever bother with MCS?” was a typical sentiment.

This completely sums up the failings of the scheme.  If it’s just seen a tick-box exercise, a gateway to government handouts then absent the subsidies and the scheme is worthless.  As a consumer protection scheme it’s hard to find anyone in the industry that believes it works.

The irony of this is that the MCS was created by the industry itself.  If you think the management of the scheme is bureaucratic to the point of paralysis, or that its police have no incentive to drive out poor practice (or even look for it) in the companies they audit.  If you think the installer audit focuses more on the accuracy of paperwork rather than the quality of the outcome for the consumers; or the way you have to demonstrate you meet the “competence” requirements are baffling and incomprehensible; then apparently you only have yourself to blame.

After all, the people running it are the representatives of trade associations, certifying bodies, training providers and government bodies that make up the steering group, and you can see who they are by looking here.  There are no less than thirty two bodies represented.   Thirty two bums on seats at meetings.  Thirty two people to have a say on any decision.  Can you imagine how those meetings must go?

And thirty two is plenty enough people to produce the dilution of responsibility for no one to act to put things right.  Our industry representatives have allowed the MCS to become what it is due to the Bystander Effect, and it’s time for industry to demand that our representatives start representing us at the MCS.

This time last year, the Solar Trade Association produced a manifesto for change at the MCS.  It called for improvements to its governance, rigorous enforcement (and expulsion of substandard companies), measurement and reporting of the quality of installations (and therefore the success of the scheme), and spending some of the vast accumulated reserves promoting the industry and accredited installers to the public.

The solarblogger has heard that against the reluctance of the‘Interim CEO and Chairman’ a small group of members of the Steering Group were able to push for changes based on the ideas in this manifesto.  A 100-day plan to enact the changes was agreed, but a year later and little has changed, the actions bogged down in a sticky morass of procedure and delay.  Instead of hearing that these urgently needed changes have been made, we’ve had the scheme sending out communications about moving to a new legal structure to become a charity.  It’s spent the year rearranging the deckchairs.

The MCS has been given a stay of execution.  The outcome of the Feed in Tariff review has given it a short window where people will still want to use it to access government support.  The industry wants a scheme that is responsive to its needs, cost-effective and delivers effective consumer protection, something MCS is not providing at present.  The team appointed to run the scheme in its new charitable status need to get on with making the changes necessary for MCS to become useful in a world without subsidies and our industry representatives should stand up and help make it happen.