As director of the United States Office of Consumer Affairs, Ann Windham Wallace is responsible for representing consumer concerns in all areas of government.
"Today, these concerns range from the traditional health and safety issues to broader concerns about education, international trade and protecting the environment," says Wallace. "I truly believe that the development of federal policy must take the consumer perspective into account."At the recent Consumer Assembly sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, Wallace, who was appointed to the office by President Bush last December after the resignation of Bonnie Guiton, outlined the perspectives and priorities she sees in her office.
At the top of her agenda, she says, are four issues: 900 telephone number services, environmental labeling, privacy initiatives and consumer literacy.
900 NUMBERS: The 900 number is a new twist in telemarketing - where you pay for the sales pitch, along with the telephone call. If you know exactly what you are getting and how much you'll be charged, 900 numbers can be a perfectly good way to do business or get information.
But a number of problems have arisen, including: failure to disclose costs upfront, difficulty in finding out total costs, scams that promote bogus products or services, products that encourage children and teens to buy.
There is also a privacy concern involving 900 numbers, says Wallace. "Companies or individuals offering 900 numbers may be able to capture the phone numbers from which incoming calls are being dialed, without the caller's knowledge. The number then may be matched to a name and address, and a great deal of other purchase and lifestyle data. In turn, each caller can be placed on a mailing or telemarketing list - again - without his or her knowledge."
ENVIRONMENTAL LABELING: With American business jumping on the environmental bandwagon, there is a growing call for national definitions and standards for environmental claims on product labels and in advertising. "The profusion of environmental claims and labeling has been significant - as has confusion about their meaning," says Wallace.
There seems to be a universal agreement on a need for standardization, she says, but there are some remaining areas of disagreement among those calling for federal action. For instance, should federal guidelines pre-empt state laws? Should claims such as "recyclable" and "compostable" be allowed when no local recycling and composting facilities are available?
The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs will be working with the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Trade Commission on these issues, says Wallace.
PRIVACY INITIATIVES: Advancing technology has far outpaced the ability of either current law or the average consumer to protect privacy. In areas such as credit, medicine, insurance, direct marketing and telecommunications, there needs to be a balance between industry's need for information and consumers' right to privacy.
"We will continue to recommend essential adjustments in the American system for helping consumers protect confidential information, and to monitor data protection developments in other countries and international bodies because of the ultimate effects on American consumers," says Wallace.
CONSUMER LITERACY: When the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, the Consumer Federation of America and the TRW Foundation conducted a consumer competency test among American consumers last fall, only 54 percent of the respondents answered the questions correctly.
This is a clear indication, says Wallace, of large gaps in consumer knowledge. "Discrepancies among scores from specific groups clearly defined the most
crucial areas we need to address. The test showed the young, the poor and the least well-educated were the least prepared to cope with the economic problems of everyday life.
"We are a constantly changing society. The test results highlight the failure of current programs to move fast enough to keep up with changes."
In response to test results and as a result of conferences and meetings with various consumer leaders, concerns and suggestions have been translated into five specific goals, says Wallace.
1. Expand our outreach to minorities and other groups. "Traditional education often fails to deliver consumer information to the people who need it most. It is a tragic fact that almost half of black teenagers in the United States never finish high school. Dropout rates are also high among other minority groups, particularly Hispanics."
Many foreign students and their parents not only have language literacy problems, but also bring with them a distrust of government programs, she says. "We cannot expect them to be able to protect their interests
if they can't understand what we are telling them."
These are non-traditional consumers and they have to be reached by non-traditional methods - through the entertainment media, local and community organizations and religious and social groups, she says.
2. We will make consumer messages more compelling and relevant. "Reams of printed matter compete each day for the attention of the consumer. Only a few pieces get read. We'd like to think consumer publications are high on the reader interest list. But how many people do you know who turn off the TV, or put aside their murder mysteries and curl up at night with a good consumer pamphlet?"
We need more aggressive approaches for capturing the interest of consumers through print, television and other popular entertainment media, Wallace says.
This means getting consumer messages that "sell" into sitcoms, talk shows, videos for cable and other formats that often feature social issues. Short, effective, compelling consumer messages can also be included with wage statements, utility bills and on telephone information lines that offer a free message by calling an 800 number.
"We realize that times have changed and our methods of reaching consumers have not kept pace. A generation raised on Archie Bunker and Andy of Mayberry responds differently than one raised on Bart Simpson and Roseanne Barr. We must recognize these difference and update our methods of reaching these groups."
3. We will make cost and benefits of consumer programs apparent to individuals, policy makers and the private sector. This goal can best be accomplished by showing them the high cost of not having the information needed to make sound consumer decisions.
For example, Wallace quoted statistics from Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan: The cumulative toll from smoking each year is 390,000 deaths, including 21 percent of heart disease deaths, 87 percent of lung cancer deaths and 30 percent of all cancer deaths. Abuse of alcohol was responsible for half of the 30,000 motor vehicle deaths in 1988 and 40 percent of the drownings. Drinking is a major cause of cirrhosis, the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S.
"Those are frightening figures. They become even more shocking when we realize that all of these result from decisions over which each of us has personal control."
4. We will develop an "essential body of knowledge" profile to ensure that programs reach the areas where they are most needed. A profile of essential consumer knowledge will serve as a guide to the design of programs for specific audiences at their point of need.
5. We will examine consumer literacy in the schools and find ways to include this important subject in more school programs. "We are aware of the stiff competition for space in curriculum programs already pushed by time and budget limitations. We are equally aware how important it is to incorporate consumer subjects into existing school courses," says Wallace. "Many areas of consumer decision making can be integrated into such subjects as math, science and writing."
But, she says, whatever programs they devise must deal with long-range cures for our education problems. "The lack of adequate consumer education is a large wound that hurts the body of the nation. We cannot cure it by applying a Band-aid."
As director of the Office of Consumer Affairs, Wallace is also interested in input and experiences from both consumers and consumer advocacy groups. "We need and will welcome all the help we can get. We are going to make these programs work! We are facing a tremendous challenge, but its nothing that we can't beat by working together."
If you have problems, information or concerns you would like to pass along to the consumer voice in Washington, you can write to Ann Windham Wallace, U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, Washington, DC 21201.
Director has long experience of advocacy
Ann Windham Wallace, a native of Tyler, Texas, has served in a number of advocacy roles including executive director of the Governor's Commission for Women and director of Community Leadership and Volunteer Services, both in Texas. She has also worked with task forces dealing with concerns of displaced homemakers, the disabled and children.
As director of the United States Office of Consumer Affairs she is the administration's point person on consumer issues and is responsible for ensuring that the consumer perspective is represented in federal government activities. She also chairs the Federal Consumer Affairs Council, composed of policy-level officials from 41 federal agencies.
Wallace has three children and three grandchildren.