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From challenge to triumph: one council’s journey through change

Making big changes as a smaller water organisation isn’t always easy, but one case study highlights what can be achieved when strategy is utilised to communicate and manage change effectively.

On day one of Ozwater’24, delegates attending the Making Bold Change stream heard from Central Coast Council and AECOM about the implementation of a step-change process to enable Council to work through significant asset management challenges.

Central Coast Council Lead Assets and Planning Engineer Rex Haydon outlined the step-change process proposed within the Council’s recent pricing submission to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) – a process derived after a difficult merger transition.

“In 2016, Central Coast Council was formed following the merger of the Gosford City and Wyong Shire Councils. In 2018, Council commenced its first IPART determination. As a combined Council, we were still a new business and had many separate systems,” Haydon said.

“Our finance system was different. Our asset management system was different. Our water billing system was different. And most of our staff were still siloed.

“From 2019, our first IPART determination identified we had been underperforming in some of the key output measures and these included sewage overflows, water quality complaints, environmental protection license targets, and it was also accompanied by an upward trend in other measures, such as customer service requests.”

Haydon said the step-change process was underpinned by an asset management improvement plan to lift the maturity of asset management decision making.

“There was an increasing risk of performance deterioration, potential impact on customer services, as well as issues with the financial and environmental sustainability of the organisation. And the outcome was that the IPART determination significantly reduced our revenue,” she said.

“In 2020, Council was suspended, an administrator was appointed and tough action was taken. We had tighter budget controls and reduced staff. This time was really challenging for us and our customers. If you think a merger sounds challenging, try doing it with no finances.”

Change of approach

 AECOM ANZ Technical Practice Lead Asset Management Dr Frederic Blin said the 2021 IPART submission was a very important document for Council, and adopted a step-change approach to transforming asset management processes.

 “At the end of the day, people do asset management. I've done a lot of change management and, at the core, we needed to convince people that these changes are good for them, both internally and externally,“ he said.

 “And the transition essentially was around shifting from reactive maintenance to proactive preventative maintenance. In order to do that, there was a really big focus on improved asset knowledge.

 “This is why over the past six to 12 months, the Council has been going through a lot of condition assessment and performance assessment programs to get some reliable data around where the assets are in their life cycle.”

 Blin said Council also worked through strategic objectives for decision making, and used them to articulate to IPART the key drivers of change.

“The first strategic objective is around optimising customer value, or customer centricity. Another objective was around having a management system, or a decision-making framework that is geared up for sustainable and resilient water and sewer services,” he said.

 “The third one was around culture. People do asset management, people make decisions. So good asset management is really about good culture. Another objective was continuous improvement, and another was around compliance.

“And, finally, leadership – these changes are actually led from the top down and have led to the development of skills and capability across the organisation.”

Lessons learned

Council’s 2022 IPART determination was a success, and Haydon said the step change enabled a program-based approach, rather than a project-to-project approach, which was a significant improvement for the recently merged Council.

“Another lesson we have learned through these changes is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable – we have to show our bellies,” she said.

“One of the biggest differences between the 2019 and 2022 IPART determinations was our ability to identify and understand what we've not been able to do well.

“We proposed improvements, similar to other water authorities, as guidance on best of breed process integration.”