By Mikayla Bridge, Journalist, Utility magazine

Community engagement is an essential tool that allows water utilities to improve customer-utility relationships and communicate vital information such as the importance of water savings. Utility spoke with Urban Utilities, Yarra Valley Water and Melbourne Water about how they ensure success in their community engagement campaigns.

Community engagement is a strategic process employed by utilities to create meaningful, inclusive dialogue with communities, so that both the utility and community members can make well-informed decisions from which they benefit socially and financially.

Yarra Valley Water, Urban Utilities and Melbourne Water are three examples of Australian water utilities that have each run successful community engagement campaigns. Interestingly, each utility measures success differently and places a different emphasis on which aspects of community engagement are most important.

Tiffany White, General Manager Strategy and Community at Yarra Valley Water, said that community engagement is an important factor in the utility’s project planning and delivery as well as education and awareness campaigns. This includes the organisation’s recent WaterCare campaign, which raised awareness of support services for customers.

“We work for the community and we’re always looking for ways to engage with our customers through a warm, human presence,” Ms White said.

“During the WaterCare campaign we worked with our community partners to drive conversations within their communities to ensure our campaign messaging was delivered effectively through credible and trusted sources. These relationships build confidence in us and help customers to feel more comfortable contacting us if they do need support with their bills.”

Colette Torrance, community engagement and education manager at Urban Utilities

Colette Torrance, Community Engagement and Education Manager at Urban Utilities, is similarly passionate about the importance of community engagement in Urban Utilities’ projects.

“At Urban Utilities, our customers are at the heart of what we do and our water and wastewater services play an integral role in enhancing quality of life,” Ms Torrance said. “As we look ahead, an important focus of our community engagement program is working with our communities to help shape their future water and wastewater services.”

Melbourne Water, responsible for maintaining the health of Melbourne’s 25,000km of rivers, creeks and catchments, also takes a proactive approach to community engagement.

By creating meaningful, accessible opportunities for greater diversity and inclusivity in its projects, the utility continues to expand its digital engagement tools to equip communities with the knowledge needed to participate in decision making about future services.

“Everyone in the community can make a difference when it comes to maintaining our water supply and healthy rivers and creeks for the future – from water saving measures to planting trees and reducing litter,” Karen Owens, Corporate Communications and Brand Manager, Melbourne Water, said.

“In Melbourne, a safe, clean and healthy environment is essential to our way of life, and we pride ourselves on working closely with the community to achieve our goals. That’s why we put the community at the core of our work, so communications are vital. This includes education and awareness programs and seeking input into projects.”

Strategies and campaigns

Each community engagement campaign requires a unique approach. In order to start a meaningful conversation with specific customers or communities, a campaign should:

• Identify the right audience
• Ask the right questions
• Find the right way to connect
• Listen to feedback with an open mind

By personalising your approach to suit different community members communication styles, you are starting the conversation with a warm approach and optimising your chances for a long lasting connection.

Cannery Creek sewer upgrade concept design showing shared paths.

Urban Utilities, Yarra Valley Water and Melbourne Water agree that successful community engagement requires customised, innovative approaches. Urban Utilities has been working on innovative solutions to help manage the impacts of intense rainfall on its wastewater network in Northgate and Banyo in Brisbane, near Cannery Creek water course.

Aware that the area and its surroundings were important to the local community, the company asked the community to help it design an effective solution that would benefit both the organisation and the local area.

“We’re committed to working with our customers and communities to help create solutions that not only manage water sustainably, but add value to our city and its communities,” Ms Torrance said.

“In the case of our Cannery Creek Sewer Upgrade, we formed a Community Planning Team (CPT) which is made up of 23 self-nominated community members and collectively they represent a diverse demographic cross-section of the local area.

“They’ve been involved from the beginning and as a result of their input, the design also integrates a number of community aspirations including beautifying the creek banks and surrounds and providing shared paths and seating for local residents to use.”

Yarra Valley Water has also approached community engagement in a number of different ways to best educate the community on the importance of water conservation, sewer blockages, and more. Recent campaigns include:

• Make Every Drop Count water conservation campaign
• Wet wipes awareness campaign

By creating a campaign advocating water conservation, Yarra Valley Water is enabling its customers to understand the company’s challenges and become advocates for the issue.

“As part of the recent Make Every Drop Count water conservation campaign, a collaborative effort delivered by Melbourne’s metropolitan water corporations, Melburnians shared their water-saving tips via a dedicated website and through radio promotions,” Ms White said.

The major issue of sewer blockages in Melbourne – caused by flushing non-flushable items down the toilet – is just as critical to Yarra Valley Water, particularly during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns, when the city saw critical toilet paper shortages.

“During the COVID-19 panic buying in 2020, we reached out to vulnerable customers through our community partners, delivering toilet paper and hand sanitiser. We’ve handed out branded toilet paper to commuters at train stations as part of our wet wipes awareness campaign, targeting areas where wipes were causing sewer blockages,” Ms White said.

Melbourne Water’s approach to community engagement was just as unique, with its recent focus on keeping Melbourne’s rivers and creeks clean of litter. To help city residents understand the importance of the issue, and their role in it, Melbourne Water forged a partnership with Melbourne Zoo in early 2022. Together, they created an educational augmented reality experience under the banner ‘Make Litter Extinct’.

“This fun, free and interactive experience involved a series of QR codes located around the zoo on colourful posters. Visitors had to go to various sites around the Zoo, scan the codes on a mobile phone to find five critters and help protect them from litter that ends up in our rivers and creeks,” Ms Owens said.

“Visitors to the Zoo learnt that the litter that is dropped in our streets travels through stormwater drains and ends up in our rivers and creeks, impacting the habitats of animals like the platypus. The aim was to increase awareness of the impact of littering and encourage good habits in children and adults to ensure all litter is placed in bins.”

Measuring successful engagement

Just as each community engagement campaign should employ different approaches, they also require different methods to measure success.

There are various tools available to measure the success of community engagement including surveys, social media followings, workshops, and other approaches that provide an analytical view of the campaign’s success.

However, in order to retain long-term community engagement, it is critical when analysing data, to focus on the ‘why’ of the results. By understanding the ‘why’, the data becomes multi-functional; able to tell you not only how engaged communities are, but how likely they are to remain engaged, and how positive their experiences were.

For the Cannery Creek Sewer Upgrade, Urban Utilities worked with residents in a CPT for over three years to provide input into the project’s design plans.

“The CPT considered a number of options over many workshops and site visits. In 2019, they recommended that we pursue a nature-based solution which involved establishing a new wetland,” Ms Torrance said.

“By working together, we’ve come up with an integrated approach which will deliver benefits for the community, environment and our operations. The CPT are also eager to stay engaged and follow the progression of the project.” Yarra Valley Water also achieved great results for its WaterCare campaign.

“For our WaterCare campaign we received more than 17,000 unique page views on our campaign website page through direct marketing (such as emails and SMS) and advertising. Paid advertising has delivered 5.4 million impressions and 737,000 video views.

“We evaluate our overall campaign efforts with reach, engagement, conversion numbers, and surveys to understand sentiment, attitudes and claimed behaviours,” Ms White said.

For Melbourne Water’s Make Litter Extinct campaign, successful community engagement was measured in a number of ways; how many people scanned the QR codes, social media engagement, traditional media coverage, satisfaction rates, surveys and participation conversion rates.

“As it was the first education program of its kind for Melbourne Water, it was used as a testing ground and there were many learnings afterwards – including placing QR codes in shady places, with room for prams,” Ms Owens said.

Yarra valley water staff at the Olivia Newton-John cancer wellness and research centre with wellness packs distributed as part of the watercare campaign.

Reaping the rewards

Urban Utilities, Yarra Valley Water and Melbourne Water have each found quantifiable success through their campaigns. All measured success through, not only consumer growth and financial gain, but positive community feedback. For lasting community relationships, qualitative data is equally important.

Overall, Urban Utilities’ CPT provided overwhelmingly positive feedback on the company’s engagement process. “The CPT felt they had been listened to and given a valuable opportunity to contribute to the recommended solution. We’ll keep the CPT updated as construction starts in mid-2022 and as the project progresses,” Ms Torrance said.

The Urban Utilities project team found the project similarly rewarding. They achieved a clear understanding of the community’s needs and expectations.

“Thanks to the collaborative approach, we’ll be able to make Cannery Creek and its surroundings resilient to wet weather events to ensure the community can enjoy this beautiful area for years to come,” Ms Torrance said.

In Yarra Valley Water’s most recent survey to understand the impact of its WaterCare campaign on communities, it found:

• 83 per cent of respondents trusted Yarra Valley Water to do the right thing (compared to a baseline of 74 per cent)

• 80 per cent of respondents agreed that Yarra Valley Water helps customers experiencing difficulty paying for essential water and sewerage services (compared to a baseline of 50 per cent)

• 63 per cent of respondents said they would access WaterCare to assist with paying their account after being exposed to the campaign

• 50 per cent of respondents said that they accessed a support option after being exposed to the campaign

• 89 per cent of respondents said that it was important for Yarra Valley Water to communicate payment support options to their customers

“These results underscore the importance of continually engaging with our customers so they understand the support that’s available to them, and doing so in a way that resonates and inspires confidence and trust to seek that help when they need it,” Ms White said.

Similarly, Melbourne Water asked participants in its Make Litter Extinct campaign to undertake a survey detailing their experiences. The survey found that 100 per cent of respondents learnt something new and stated they would make an effort to reduce litter.

“We found it was an interesting, agile and successful experience that could be re-purposed elsewhere,” Ms Owens said. Community engagement is a skill utilities must work to develop. The key measure of success is an effective partnership between a utility and the community, and greater engagement will lead to better inclusivity, transparency and efficiency in future projects.

Featured image: L-R-Fulton Hogan Utilities’ Aaron Lutton and Urban Utilities’ Paul Phillips at the breaking ground.

©2024 Utility Magazine. All rights reserved


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