I used to work as the webmaster for the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC); the agency has a rather misleading name that was dictated to them by the Ohio Legislature when the agency was formed in 1976. Instead of being a general consumer rights agency (as one might guess), it deals solely with helping people sort out problems with regulated residential public utilities: gas, telephone, water, and electric service. They can't help you with unregulated utilities like cell phones, because that's not in their scope.

However, because of the name, when I was there the agency frequently got phone calls and letters from people who had problems with "lemon" cars, faulty products, unsatisfactory services, etc. And some of those people got really, really angry when the phone rep told them the OCC couldn't help them and that they should contact the Attorney General's office instead.

Because of this, the agency spends quite a lot of time on public information projects like sending out public speakers to fairs and schools and distributing educational fact sheets. In recent years, they've tried a new "branding" project to make the OCC more identifiable in the minds of the Ohio public. For instance, they switched their website from the fairly anonymous http://www.state.oh.us/cons/ to the presumably more memorable http://www.pickocc.org/.

Unfortunately, their efforts at public awareness are doomed to a certain amount of failure because utilities just aren't very sexy. People don't want to think about utilities; they take them for granted, and they don't interface with the OCC unless they've been shafted, and then they're going to be grumpy and angry and ready to tear the agency a new one unless things get fixed immediately. The OCC could hire a three-ring circus to visit every city in the state, and peoples' eyes would still glaze over at the first mention of "utilities".

The other aspect of the agency's purpose is to work in tandem with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to represent the interests of consumers as state policy is being created on utilities matters. While it might seem that such matters are fairly straightforward, utilities issues and politics are byzantine enough to give any good geek a headache.

The Ohio Consumers' Counsel is actually the head of the agency and is always a lawyer (thus it's "Counsel" instead of "Council", another common point of name confusion). It's an appointed position rather than an elected one. The current head is Robert S. Tongren, who took the job in 1994. He has been less consumer advocacy-oriented than some of the past Counsels; his tactic is to try to work with utilities companies behind the scenes rather than to attack them directly. Thus, if you ever see the OCC issuing a statement against a company's practices, you can be sure they've been committing a ton of violations against consumers.

The activities of the Counsel are overseen by a governing board. Members of the board are appointed by the state's Attorney General.

The agency employs mainly lawyers, utilities experts, communications specialists, and telephone reps. Government workers often get an unfairly bad rep; most of the people there are bright, competent folks who are often greatly hindered and frustrated by the monster that is state bureaucracy.

The narrowness of the OCC's stated scope is one thing that frustrated me when I worked there. I wanted to develop educational materials on alternate energy sources such as fuel cells and solar power. It wasn't in our scope, therefore it couldn't go on the site.

The trend in the U.S. now is for deregulation, which is what all the current proliferation of gas and electric marketers is about. As more and more utilities get deregulated, the OCC's scope will get narrower and narrower. The agency may eventually get absorbed by the PUCO, but no doubt it will fight to remain its own entity.