Karina Albanese, Manager of Price Modelling and Analytics at SA Water recently started on our Young Utility Leaders Development Program. Karina joined us for our first online WSAA AGM and Members Meeting with water industry CEOs and MDs. In this blog Karina reflects on the big themes.
Like so many other events this year, the 2019-20 WSAA AGM and Members Meeting was conducted over Zoom. I was looking forward to seeing (virtually) the leaders of the water sector from across the country at this session, and hearing what was on the national agenda. The agenda looked jam packed with interesting presentations and knowledge sharing sessions, in addition to the formalities, so with our un-mute buttons ready, chat function activated and our virtual hi-fives on standby I dove into the meeting.
Adam Lovell started off the morning with an overview of the year. As Adam discussed the highlights, I was not only impressed with the breadth of work, but also surprised that most of it had impacted me in some way in my day-to-day work. COVID-19 was a significant focus area, as was supporting the bushfire recovery – through fact sheets, online meetings and forums. Being in the Pricing Team at SA Water, the other area that really resonated with me was better understanding customers through customer perception surveys and willingness to pay studies (this is always front of mind when setting prices!). And of course, I did a little happy dance when they mentioned the WSAA Young Utility Leaders Program (super grateful that WSAA value the contribution and potential of young leaders!).
Pat McCafferty (Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water) and Lara Olsen (Managing Director of South East Water) shared lessons learned from the boil water alerts in Melbourne in August this year. While I had heard about this incident in the news, it was interesting to hear more detail and I was really warmed by the openness to share the lessons learned so that other utilities could take steps to ensure they are best prepared for similar circumstances.
Next, Paul Murphy (National Hydrogen Strategy, Department of Industry) talked about the water industry’s contribution to the National Hydrogen Strategy. I had not had much exposure to anything hydrogen before, so embraced the opportunity to hear how hydrogen is produced and what Australia is doing in this space. My takeaways were that the Commonwealth and States have all contributed funding towards this low emission technology so that, like many other countries, we can use hydrogen to decarbonise our energy systems. Pat Donovan, CEO of Water Corporation, concluded the Hydrogen discussion with examples from Water Corporation, emphasising how this is an example of the circular economy and a necessary part of addressing climate change risks. *virtual hi-fives all round*
We also discussed customer vulnerability. In my day job of price setting we are always very conscious of this, and it was good to be reminded that due to COVID-19 this is more of an issue than ever! Customers who have never considered themselves vulnerable are suddenly facing problems paying bills and may require different assistance to existing hardship customers. I was interested to hear about how water utilities are doing more to link with other essential services (e.g. water and energy) so that it is easier for customers to access concessions and assistance at once.
Sabiene Heindl (Director of The Energy Charter) talked through The Energy Charter’s 5 principles of: customer centric culture, affordability, sustainability, customer experience, and supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances. It was comforting to know that the water and energy sectors are working together to not ‘recreate the wheel’ but instead leverage off each for the benefit of our customers.
Jo Murdoch (General Manager Customers and Community, Barwon Water) detailed Barwon Water’s hardship program, and their new Customer Support Strategy which was co-designed with customers. She highlighted that it is essential to build the capability of staff to ensure all contact center staff have the necessary skills to engage with customers who are experiencing hardship. This really made me think about the types of conversations that happen with our customers every day and how proud I am to be part of a sector that ensures we protect vulnerable customers rather than ignore them.
The final presentation for the day was from my organisation’s CEO David Ryan on behalf of the Utility Excellence Committee (of WSAA). I had not heard of the Utility Excellence Committee before and so was interested to hear what types of projects are in progress across the country to ensure we do indeed pursue excellence. Projects included mental health, specifically during COVID-19, with a new framework recently launched with support from Beyond Blue. It was great to see the commitment for mental health and wellbeing to be at the forefront of all the utilities’ minds. Digital program improvements were discussed, with an aim to improve how digital initiatives are communicated, procured, and implemented, and ensure learnings are shared across utilities. There was also the bulk water chemical supply project, where teams are investigating global logistics and supply chains, especially during the COVID-19 environment, to mitigate potential risks for the water industry. I had never considered the supply chain risks to water treatment in this way before, and now appreciate the value of liquified chlorine gas! And finally, the asset management customer value project was discussed, where the maturity of the industry’s asset management is being investigated and benchmarked internationally.
A key message for me was that these projects are member driven and continue to adapt and change in response to member needs. It was great to see firsthand how the collaboration between member utilities is driving real business change that will in turn benefit our customers.
Adam closed the meeting, and we all gave our Zoom wave of acknowledgement that our brains were overflowing with ideas and inspiration from fellow member utilities. Despite not meeting physically, I left the meeting with a sense of community, collaboration, and connectedness between water utilities that for me was, well, unprecedented.