The Environmental Finance Center has partnered with Arcadis, Raftelis Financial Consultants, ICMA, and Stratus Consulting to get to the bottom of what meaningful communication between water utilities and their governing boards regarding rates and finances looks like. What do the boards want to know? How do they want to know it? It’s easy in a research project to want to focus on measurable results. If you do ‘x’, then you’ll achieve ‘y’. But it’s not that easy with communication.
We spent a week interviewing water utility staff and their governing board members in the Southeast last month, and their insight on the topic should be no surprise to anyone that has been involved in any relationship. Below are some of the insights shared by board members on effective strategies about how staff can foster their support for rate increases.
Keep it real!
The conversation with elected officials has to be persistent and consistent. People are busy; messages have to be repeated and concise. Several years ago, the EPA sponsored a report on “Message Mapping” for utilities in times of emergency, a methodology for staying on point across an organization and anticipating questions likely to be asked after an incident. But many utilities cite a strategy similar to Message Mapping as key to ongoing rate communication. If the sole topic of communication is a rate request, the communication seems inauthentic and calculated. Board members are people, and many board members are busy people. They have beliefs that were developed consciously and subconsciously well before they were elected or appointed. Working with (and not against) those requires active listening and response.
Building and maintaining trust and credibility is critical.
Certainly persistent communication is important, but there are a lot of people that are not going to listen until disaster strikes. It is in those times that a utility can build a great deal of trust if the utility is prepared and responsive. In many cases, this will be best chance that the utility has to capture the council’s attention. Being accessible is important in building trust, as almost every board member interviewed cited times when they could turn to the utility with questions, and staff had the answers (or admitted to not having them but promptly found them). Additionally, multiple council members mentioned the importance of third-party recognition of the utility’s technical and financial achievements.
Particularly, utilities should cultivate champions on the board. Work is done in small groups. If you have one board member that really understands the needs of the utility, they can relate to other board members in a way that staff cannot. Everyone cares, but the utility needs some one that cares enough to problem solve. Finding (and keeping) this person may not always be easy.
Tomorrow’s board members are today’s customers.
The first impression of the utility on the majority of board members will be as a service provider, not an organizational charge. They receive and pay bills. They talk to their neighbors about utility services. And they may even attend local leadership courses and tour treatment plants. Their experience as a customer will build their beliefs, so it is important for staff to acknowledge that impressions from the past may influence board members’ reactions to future requests.