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Utility taps customers' preferences via citizens’ jury

In order to ensure its most recent pricing submission reflects the diversity of the communities it serves, one Victorian utility has returned to a community consultation process that hands the power to the people.

Yarra Valley Water (YVW) has once again enlisted the help of a citizens’ jury to inform the utility’s 2023-28 Pricing Submission – outlining the services provided and the prices customers will pay in the next five-year period.

This marks the second time YVW has tapped into the preferences and concerns of its customers via a citizens’ jury process – the utility also used the process to inform its 2017-23 price submission. This time, YVW decided to use the opportunity to improve on its first jury process.

YVW Managing Director Pat McCafferty said finding the right way to gauge customers’ preferences can be a real challenge for utilities, especially when the community served is highly diverse.

“We've got two million people in our service area. There's always an expectation and a desire from our own end to understand what all of our customers want from us, what their expectations are, what they value, and what they want to see prioritised,” he said.

“For the process that exists here in Victoria, there's a strong expectation from the regulator that any price submission that we put on the table reflects the hopes, concerns and expectations of the community.

“We don't have an unlimited amount of money to allocate across our business, so we need guidance from the community about how we prioritise where that money goes. But how do you manage that when you serve two million people?

“Our customers are very diverse. In our service area, we've got some of the most advantaged socio-economic suburbs in the country, but also some of the most disadvantaged. We have a large population of new Australians, many of whom do not speak English as a first language.”

McCafferty said the citizens’ jury process captures the breadth and depth of community insight needed to ensure the pricing submission is inclusive of everyone’s voice, but that the method is not for the faint-hearted.

“We are allowing the jury to make decisions for current generations as well as future generations. And making these decisions is a big responsibility,” he said.

“The first time we did a citizens’ jury for the 2017-2023 Pricing Submission, I told the jury members that the process felt a bit like handing my car keys to my 18-year-old son.

“Not all organisations would be up for handing over the keys. We are in an industry that has generally been monopolistic for the past 50 years.

“But times have changed. It's really all about having a one-on-one relationship with our customers now. We need to work with them, not just for them.”

How it works

The citizens’ jury process is about having an informed conversation with customers, McCafferty said, and involves giving them the opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities in delivering water services – it allows the broader community to walk in the water utility’s shoes.

“The jury process allows us to get a cross representation of the community while maintaining impartiality. But it goes a lot deeper than registering our customer’s initial reaction to a question or problem,” he said.

“There's a process to make sure that our jury members are representative of the broader community. Once we’ve got the 40 or so people that make up the jury, they all come together, each with their own view of the world. And they go through a process of being informed about their water.

“We know the jury come into the room with perceptions that might not be factually accurate. And sometimes individuals come preoccupied with issues that they deem to be of paramount importance to them personally.

“But, as they go through the jury process, which involves hearing from expert witnesses, they shift from an individual's perspective to a community perspective. All of a sudden, you can see they're walking in your shoes. That's the beauty of the jury process – they become more informed.”

McCafferty said YVW is unable to influence the jury during the process, but started by supplying a jury information packet: “that was one of the hardest things we've ever done. We provided no more than 100 pages, bringing together all elements of delivering an essential service in common language”.

“But from then on, we really were not allowed to engage with the jury’s discussion. The first time we did a jury, I was allowed to observe. I could hear everyone talking about what we should and shouldn’t do, and it was incredibly hard not to interject,” he said.

Initially, he had to have faith in the process, McCafferty said.

“But then, eventually, I could hear the pennies dropping. The jury would move back a step, and then forward two. It was a fascinating process to watch,” he said.

Delivering promises

McCafferty said that with both the first and the second citizens’ jury, YVW has worked on embedding the recommendations into the business to ensure that needs and expectations are being met.

“For the first jury, we had seven areas that we committed to deliver and report on every year. Three of these areas are in relation to our customer’s expectations – the services we provide that our customer’s weren’t prepared to pay any more for, including water quality, reliability and responsiveness,” he said.

“But there were four areas where they said, “you know what, if you move the dial on these four things, our level of satisfaction and perceptions of value will increase”. These included caring for the environment, looking after the most vulnerable people in our communities, modernising our services and increasing water conservation efforts.”

As part of the process, YVW committed to providing a $1.5 million community rebate for each target it didn’t deliver on, McCafferty said.

“If we don’t deliver, we will drop our prices. This commitment really holds us to account. But it also sharpens our focus,” he said.

“It focuses our entire business on what is really important to customers. It lines up all our effort, investment, work and attention on those seven core commitments. It’s a great way of bringing the whole business on the journey of meeting our customers’ expectations.”

Improving the process

McCafferty said YVW made a few changes to the citizens’ jury the second time around, all aimed at creating a process that was even more closely attuned to community, including asking the jury to co-design the focus of discussion.

“For the first jury, we created the jury remit, which is the question that we wished to explore with our customers. It was: We need to find a balance between price and service which is fair for everyone. How should we do this?” he said.

“But, the second time around, we asked the community to create the remit. We got what we call ‘critical friends’ – people who had been exposed to the sector, regulators, people from academia – to come together and discuss what they thought the issues were for us both now and in the future.

“And the co-created remit for our second citizens’ jury was quite different to our first. It was: How can water and the environment be respected and protected for and by present and future generations?”

McCafferty said one other profound difference was having Traditional Owner elders involved in the process, too.

“We had an Aboriginal Community Working Group that guided the process and spoke directly to the jury about their values. The elders held a yarning circle with the jury, where they talked about their relationship to Country, their responsibility to care for Country, and their philosophies about water,” he said. 

“It really blew the jury away, so much so that when they decided on their final recommendations, there was overarching support for us to adopt caring for Country principles and thinking into everything that we do.

“Another thing we did differently was ensuring we had voices that weren't in the jury the first time around, including people with accessibility issues. We had interpreters this time to enable participation in a different language and for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

McCafferty said YVW’s 2023-2028 Pricing Submission will be finalised later this month, and that the citizens’ jury process has once again produced some incredible guidance.

“The process gives us complete confidence that our pricing submission reflects the diversity of the communities we serve,” he said.