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Stronger together: Boosting community engagement through partnerships

Water is the “most essential of essential services”, which puts the water industry in a unique position to help improve not just the physical health and wellbeing of the communities it serves, but also financial and social wellbeing, says one industry expert.

“There’s different layers and complexities, and those affect not just our customer base but our employees as well. We are all vulnerable to experiencing some sort of crisis or hardship, or financial risk,” said Ciara Sterling, head of community inclusion at Yarra Valley Water, and director and CEO of the Thriving Communities Partnership.

One reason it’s especially important for water utilities to understand these circumstances is that “water is the most essential of essential services” said Sterling, who recently spoke at Where the Waters Meet 2018 Tasmania Annual Conference.

And that means it’s critical for water utilities to understand what is important to the communities they serve. Sterling said the water industry is embracing customer-centric design and seeing the value of involving communities in the work they do.

Partnerships and collaboration are crucial to achieving this. Sterling attributes much of the success of Yarra Valley Water’s community engagement initiatives to forming strong partnerships with other frontline services and community agencies. This gives them a more holistic view of what the community’s needs are, in addition to speaking directly with end-users.

“There’s nothing worse than a group of people sitting in a room and designing a process that they’re never going to have to use,” Sterling said.

“We make sure we do focus groups, to actually listen to customers and speak with them about what they need. I think one of the greatest gifts we have is to sit and speak with our customers, listen to what their pain points are, and we need to be constantly thinking about how we address those and then design services to meet those needs.”

One example of community insights that have led to business changes is Yarra Valley Water’s WaterCare program, which supports customers with financial issues. The idea came about from focus groups with customers 15 years ago when the topic of defaulting on payments came up.

What they found was customers want to pay water bills on time, but paying $200 in one go was out of reach for some.

“We were telling them what they had to pay, and they wanted to commit, but they felt like they didn’t have the opportunity to say ‘I can’t afford that’ because they were fearful of having their service restricted,” Sterling said.

As a result, the utility designed the Arrange and Save payment plan, a program that allows customers to define the range they can afford to pay for water services. It could be $50 a month, or $20 a fortnight – whatever they can afford. If they make each payment on time and in full, they receive a credit to the same value for every five payments they make to help get their debt down.

According to Sterling, 90-95 per cent of customers on the program now meet their commitments.

“Instead of chasing debt collection for money they couldn't afford to pay, we’re working with customers to come up with solutions together,” Sterling said.

As further evidence the water industry can make a difference in people’s lives, Sterling highlighted the work Victoria’s water industry has been doing, led by the Essential Services Commission, to put in place policies to help those experiencing family and domestic violence.

“It emerged from the Royal Commission into Family Violence that utility bills can be used as a weapon of sorts – having debt accumulate in someone’s name, or it was enabling perpetrators to learn people’s forwarding addresses because they know someone’s birth date and other personal details required to get past privacy checkpoints,” Sterling said.

“These are complex and multi-faceted problems and our staff weren’t trained to understand or manage these issues. The Victorian water industry has worked on it collaboratively and committed to implementing family violence policies for staff and customers, providing tailored training to build awareness of the issues and having the processes in place to support those impacted by family violence.”

Another example of a water industry-led initiative is the Thriving Communities Partnership (TCP) – a cross-sector collaboration that works to ensure everybody has fair access to essential services.

Started in the water industry, the TCP has more than 150 organisations, including utilities, financial services, telecommunications, transport, government, the community sector and corporates participating across Australia.

“The ‘one stop, one story hub’ resides at the heart of the TCP vision; it’s a solution that will provide a single entry point to access all vulnerability support services across private, public and community-based organisations,” Sterling said.

“It offers people and community organisations the opportunity to identify and access tailored support in a holistic, simplified and dignified way.

“We know that any one organisation or industry alone cannot ensure systemic change for the complex issues that face communities. We need to collaborate and work together to have a real impact and shift the dial on issues like family violence and barriers to inclusion.”

The TCP is being used as an exemplary major case study that the Australian Government will submit in its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) on Australia’s progress in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals to the UN’s High-Level Political Forum in New York.

These are only a few examples of how the water industry can go beyond just providing a service – it can really make a difference in the quality of life for its communities and customers.

“The water industry has touchpoints in almost every single household in this country. Again, we are the most essential of essential services,” Sterling said.

“We’ve always been heavily connected to our communities, and that makes us the perfect group to start these important conversations. We are about sustainability, about health and wellbeing, and the water industry is being really innovative in this space.”

Watch Ciara Sterling's keynote address at Where the Waters Meet 2018: