Barwon Water, based in Geelong, one hour South West of Melbourne, is Victoria’s largest regional urban water corporation, and provides water and sewerage services across 8,100 square kilometres to more than 298,000 customers.
Kate Vallence, Community and Stakeholder Engagement Coordinator at Barwon Water, has 10 years under her belt at Barwon Water, where she made the move from marketing to community engagement. “I decided to get into community engagement because I started to realise I wanted to get involved in more than just informing customers.” Kate wanted to be part of a deeper two-way conversation with customers, where she could find out more about the people Barwon Water provide service to, and what they want from their service provider. It was a natural progression for someone in marketing, says Kate. “If you’ve come from a communications background, it allows you to look at the bigger picture when you’re tackling an engagement program.” We sat down with Kate for our latest Bang the Table Talks podcast episode to find out more.
Do you only engage on water?
In other sectors that engage with stakeholders, like local government, it seems like there are a wide range of projects to engage on. From parks, to council plans and shopping centres, there’s always something different. So how do you engage on water, and nothing else?
Well, that’s not quite right.
For 110 years, Barwon Water has been providing core water and sewage services to its region, but it’s about more than that now. “It’s about enabling regional prosperity within our region”. For Barwon Water, this means engaging around environmental issues like zero emissions, zero waste. It also means working with local government and agencies to deliver the best value and outcomes to the community. Barwon Water is also looking how they can improve their infrastructure and invest in new technologies. “We’re looking at renewable energy projects for our business. It’s not just water and sewerage.”
To improve these services for the region, the community plays a very important part.
How do you entice the community to engage on these projects?
While Barwon Water has a rigorous approach to stakeholder engagement, the three core principles are simple. All projects must:
- Provide value to the customer and community
- Be an honest and transparent two-way conversation
- Collaboration between Barwon Water and the community to achieve outcomes
Barwon Water has quite a few tactics to bring the community into the consultation process. “We’re reaching out to that community at a grassroots level. Face to face listening posts, letters, media releases… and we’re bringing groups together and actually asking them what they value.” This includes workshops, brainstorming sessions, forums.
As Barwon Water started to engage on specific questions and projects in their recent pricing submission project, the feedback they heard from the community was positive. “People were saying, ‘this is something I’m really interested in and I want to learn more, pop me on a mailing list to hear more about what Barwon Water is up to, I want to get involved’. Once people start engaging on a project, their interest starts to spark.”
Where does online engagement fit?
Barwon Water services a large geographic area, so it can be tough to get everyone in the same room, and an online portal helps with that. But Kate said being accessible was a high priority, and online engagement helps solve many issues. “It’s about people being able to reach out to us 24/7, on a forum online or a survey that they can do on their own time, that’s convenient for them.”
Online engagement also means people can come back and find out more, even if they originally participated in person. Barwon Water heavily promoted EngagementHQ site Your Say at Barwon Water at face to face events. People could go to the site and get the latest fact sheet and it offered another channel for people to participate.
Your Say at Barwon Water is also an online hub to incorporate information and communication between those involved in offline activities.
Involving the Community in Pricing Submission
Barwon Water recently completed their pricing submission consultation. “From day one, it was integral to us that our customers were involved in the pricing submission, not so much us developing a price submission and then sending it out for public comment.”
The rigorous process began in mid-2016, when instead of developing a submission then asking the community for feedback, Barwon Water started by asking the community what was most important to them. Through focus groups and one-on-one interviews, the key topics and themes discovered were then refined, and over 1000 customers were asked targeted questions about pricing and services. This data was then presented to a community panel, where the group began working together and discussing possible solutions. The panel recommended 5 key outcomes, and 14 preferences on how to achieve them, like affordability of water services.
While the community panel worked closely together in-person, Kate set up a closed section on the Your Say Barwon Water site for community panel members. “That was a great opportunity because between the face to face meetings we ran over a couple of months, panellists were able to go online and interact with each other in a forum setting.” The panellists were sent weekly tasks between their meet ups and they could discuss together online. They enthusiastically took it on. “It was wonderful to see how they would put forward views or challenge one another and work together, and you can see opinions changing.”
“We could then incorporate this data into future workshops, where we could delve into it a bit deeper, and again they were able to pick it back up online.” Because the pricing submission was a fast-paced project, Kate needed an intuitive tool that would keep up. After a panel meeting, she needed to be able to quickly set tasks to keep the momentum going. “As an administrator of the site, the backend allowed me to do a lot of that stuff in real time without relying on IT skills that I’m not that rich in,” Kate said.
They’re also exploring using EngagementHQ for internal engagement with staff, and empowering employees to run their own engagement.
Kate’s tips for engaging in the utilities sector:
Have a look at what others are doing in your space
Instead of reinventing the wheel, find out what you can learn from your industry. As someone who engages on water projects, Kate scopes out what other providers are working on, and thinks about how it could work for Barwon Water’s customers. Also look at other utilities, like electricity or gas.
Always consider the value or outcome for your community
Talk to them and figure out the ways they can get involved. Sometimes, it’s only a small part of the project they can get involved in due to regulations or legislation. But, if you can identify there is value there for your customers, you can engage with them.
To hear more from Kate on Barwon Water’s strategic approach to community engagement, check out our latest podcast episode.