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Why Water Utility Regionalization Requires Effective Communication


Johnston County NC has initiated a major utility regionalization assessment that requires an effective communication approach.  FINESSE provides such an approach.
Johnston County NC has initiated a major utility regionalization assessment that requires an effective communication approach.

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.


Regionalization Benefits

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.


Regionalization Challenges

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:

  • Existing Infrastructure

  • Financial

  • Human Resources

  • Organizational (governance)

  • Legal (contracts and legislation)

  • Political (social)


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.


Frame

  • What do we mean by regionalization?

  • Which entities are involved?

  • How will we make decisions?

  • How do we define success?

  • How do we document the process?

Illustrate

  • Which of the seven essential visuals will we use to make key points?

  • Will we try to communicate any of the “graphics to use with caution”?

  • What will be our standard formats and colors?

  • When will we use graphics, and when will we minimize them?

Noise Reduction

  • How will we address the impacts on our ratepayers and their families?

  • What narratives will we use to satisfy non-technical professionals?

  • How will we balance the numbers and equations used by technical analysts?

Empathy

  • How will our most vulnerable ratepayers be impacted?

  • What are the social and political consequences?

  • How fast or how slow do we go?

Structure

  • What are our bottom-line messages?

  • What are the key frequently asked questions (FAQs)?

  • Is our communication accessible and inclusive?

Synergy

  • Who will influence the final decision on regionalization?

  • How will the decision makers make the final decision?

  • What type of information will one entity require versus another?

Ethics

  • Is there a right or wrong answer? Why or why not?

  • Should we share everything or just the parts that we think matter most?

  • How will we share the pluses and minuses without overwhelming people?


Applying It

Water utility regionalization requires effective communication because it has high levels of complexity and uncertainty. By its nature, it involves a long time period and passes through multiple audiences before any type of regionalization can be implemented. A communication approach is needed. FINESSE is a proven communication approach for water utility regionalization.


 

Founded by JD Solomon, Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.

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