The Blog

Let's Get Serious About Engagement

I'm passionate about engagement. However it is a term frequently banded about in the environment sector, and, if it's not done well, it's the environment that ultimately suffers. For me, engagement is listening and responding. And thankfully, things are moving on from engagement merely being a box ticking exercise. This weakens what underpins its whole purpose - which is to listen and respond.

At the moment, I am engaging, as a stakeholder, in the water company price review (known as PR19), where water companies decide what they will spend customers money on. Engagement with the customer is a crucial part of this process so it's essential it is genuine as there's so much at stake. Ofwat's new model of regulation requires that water companies demonstrate a clear mandate from customers - and their support on how their money is invested.

There is strong customer support for investing in the environment - to tackle the ongoing problems of sewage pollution and unsustainable water extraction - and to go above and beyond these minimum standards to support initiatives such as catchment management and water efficiency. For me, engagement is crucial if we are going to become water efficient. A third of the water taken out of the environment is lost through wastage - from leaks in pipes and waste in people's homes - which is not only bad news for bill payers (who are paying to treat that water to highest standards in the world), but bad news for rivers and streams too

Recently, Water UK published a report which showed that managing demand is crucial to ensure a resilient supply of water for future generations (there's a useful summary of it here). Given that many social tariffs are opt-in, companies must proactively engage customers to ensure they receive the support and tools needed to change their behaviour. This is a move away from a culture where customers were not encouraged to think about water or how much they used because it was safe in the hands of water companies. This change should be recognised as a fairly momentous shift to move to a space where a company has skills, ambition and is comfortable in its mandate to reach out and engage in efforts to change customer behaviour. This shift brings massive opportunity to enhance customer and wider stakeholder trust and participation by working in partnership. I'd like to see partnerships between wildlife trusts and rivers trusts with water companies to deliver demand management schemes all over the country as outcome of this price review.

Ofwat is requiring companies to engage with and to put customers at the heart of business - as one major company puts it "if customers could choose, they would choose". Water companies have used 'customer challenge groups' (CCGs) made up of public interest stakeholders to oversee this process. The role of these groups has been important at driving change and taking a step towards an engagement culture in the water sector.

Nevertheless I think that the need for this belies a wider failure of the market, the regulation and governance of water companies. It seems to me that the CCGs are a sticking plaster. Part of the fundamental business model of a water company should be to ensure that they put customer's interests at the core of what they do - this should be mandated in their constitution, a key role of company boards and company rewards - how they make money for shareholders - should be completely aligned to customer needs. So while the CCGs are playing an important role now - and I have huge admiration for the challenging work they do - in future this role of customer engagement must be core to the function of a water company and not delegated to a group of stakeholders who have little accountability and power to ensure customers' needs are met.

Lastly, the frames for engagement are absolutely critical. If the recent EU referendum taught us anything, it's that we need to engage with people's hearts as well as their heads because if facts don't fit with the frame, they're rejected.

For many the environment is something that is not about regulation, leakage or water quality. It is not even about catchments or good ecological status. It is something tied up with memory, culture - it's about the little river-side path where you walk your dog, or a family picnic at the sea side. It's important that the language of our engagement recognises and responds to this.

If engagement is done properly, and is not simply treated as a tick-box exercise, then I think the environment has a lot to gain.