Complexity Cartels

David Sless’s Soap Box

First Published Oct 6, 2018
We decided to reissue this blog for two reasons:

1. We noticed this Newspaper account of a court case

2. We noticed this disclaimer in the small print at the bottom of a website:

*iSelect does not compare all products in the market. The availability of products iSelect compare may change from time to time. Not all products available from iSelect’s providers are compared by iSelect and due to commercial arrangements, area or availability, not all products compared by iSelect will be available to all customers. Some products and special offers may only be available from iSelect’s call centre or website. Click here to view iSelect’s range of providers.

Complexity cartels are an unintended consequence of bad information design.

A cartel is a group of organisations who keep prices high and restrict competition. The net result of a cartel is that services and goods cost people more than they might if the cartel did not exist.

Unfortunately, and despite token attempts by governments to prohibit them, they are a feature of our everyday life. Indeed, many government functions depend on them, license them, and would be impossible without them. Think of lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and the many organisations that advise people on dealing with the labyrinthian complexity of government legislation and regulation.

Professionals in these areas are licensed by governments to explain and administer complex legislation on behalf of citizens. They agree within their professional groups on the fees they charge citizens for their services. In other words, they act as a cartel through their professional associations.

More recently, we also have complexity cartels in specific industries such as finance (see my recent blog), power suppliers, telcos, broadband providers, health insurers, travel agents, accommodation providers, funeral directors and more. With the exception of finance, this latter group is almost totally unregulated. They are the organisations that select your ideal hotel, health insurance company, and so on.

Some appear to be free services, but this is misleading. You and I pay for these indirectly because they charge the selected service providers a fee for their selection. There is no control over the level of that fee or its duration. Nor is there anything to prevent collusion between service providers to fix the fee, or to exclude some service providers from the cartel. Having investigated a few of these cartels, CRI found that many do not include all the service providers within that industry segment.

There is no doubt that the bill we get from the service provider includes the kickback to the complexity cartel. A large part of the economy deals on our behalf with complex information, and we, the users of these services, pay for it. The organisations responsible for the complexity, with government in the lead by a long way, are responsible for outsourcing the complexity. They have lazily put themselves on permanent institutional dialysis.

I know, from work we have done both for government and industry, that large parts of this complexity are unnecessary—a product of bad information design. I also know that it won’t change unless we fight for change and demand it as a right.
Join us in the fight for good information design.