Why Water Utility Regionalization Requires Effective Communication
Water utility regionalization can take various forms, all of which contain elevated levels of complexity and uncertainty. Getting through the complexity and uncertainties to solutions that are created, understood, and accepted by all participants requires effective communication.
According to USEPA, “the main benefit of regionalization is that it pools individual resources of two or more water systems to obtain services or facilities that one or both systems may not have been capable of obtaining by themselves.”
“How Regionalization & Consolidation of Water Utilities Creates New Projects” discusses more on the advantages, disadvantages, and development of new projects related to water utility regionalization. Infrastructure is the most obvious thing that can be leveraged in a regionalization structure. Less obvious things include people (certified operators or licensed engineers), billing systems, geographic information systems, equipment, and maintenance resources.
The primary challenge is regionalization is often viewed as a means to create a larger entity that results in a loss of local policy control. In some cases, one entity is financially distressed and seeking a larger customer base to spread the pain – either in the long-term or short-term. In other cases, one community simply does not like the other.
Many Inter-Related Parts
Regionalization requires many interrelated parts that must be evaluated and implemented, regardless of whether the regionalization schema is resource sharing or full merger. These include:
Legal (contracts and legislation)
Many Challenges for Utilities to Remain Viable
The article "Five Essentials for A Viable Water Utility (even when the money is free)“ discusses current water utility challenges in 2023 overlain by the context of existing issues such as mass retirements and aging infrastructure. In summary. These challenges correlate to the interrelated parts and uncertainties that impact water utility regionalization.
Tracking capital programs in terms of pumps, pipes, and facilities constructed, not just dollars spent
Declining workforce participation in addition to mass retirements and fewer younger workers entering the water utility sector
Growing regulatory demands despite regulatory staff vacancies
Shifting focus to new capital projects while the delivery of renewal and replacement of existing infrastructure is not meeting expectations
Increasing customer demands for responsiveness and timely access to information
We Need a Communications Approach
In the face of the complexities and uncertainties of water utility regionalization, we need a communications approach. Simply collecting and applying communication tips will not get the job done.
For example, “pay off your credit card each month” or “use coupons whenever you can” are viable tips that can apply to become a millionaire. However, the random tips are helpful when applied to an approach such as Dave Ramsey’s “The 7 Baby Steps,” among others. In fact, some tips may not be helpful at all.
Another example is related to the maintenance of infrastructure. Two radically different approaches are reactive maintenance (corrective maintenance driven) and proactive maintenance (preventative and predictive maintenance based). While I can collect thousands of maintenance tips, clearly some are more relevant to one approach versus the other.
FINESSE as a Communications Approach
FINESSE applies to all types of communication where the context is high levels of complexity and uncertainty, and the desired outcome is effective communication. These are a few of the questions that FINESSE seeks to address related to water utility regionalization.
What do we mean by regionalization?
Which entities are involved?
How will we make decisions?
How do we define success?