Last month I had the opportunity to attend the second full day of Yarra Valley Water’s Citizens' Jury. Citizens’ Jury I hear you ask? For most products and services customers vote with their feet and choose their supplier. But this is obviously not the case with water – one of the last great monopolies.
To its credit, the Essential Services Commission’s new approach places greater emphasis on the role of customer engagement to influence price submissions requiring water businesses to directly own the relationship with the customer.
The Citizen’s Jury is a bold new way of discovering what customers really want from their water utility. The jury of 35, randomly selected customers had been set a challenge and this was posted across the walls of the room:
“Our Challenge: We need to find a balance between price and service which is fair for everyone. How should we do this?”
On the day I attended the Jury was grappling with the issue of ‘what is fairness?’ The advantage of undertaking this in a jury structure was definitely in the representation of varying community views. When looking at something as diverse and complex as fairness, a group that represents a cross section of the community who can express their views in debate gives a refined filter through which to pass a decision.
The diverse perspectives highlighted the real views and attitudes from which customers are coming to their relationship with water. The conversation between the jurors in trying to narrow down these criteria really highlighted that there is no perfect solution that will be fair for all. What we need to ensure is when we settle on what is most fair, we are flexible enough to support those that might not quite fit. As one juror said in reflection of the speakers from the day “Complex problems require complex solutions”.
There was a definite feeling of empowerment and ownership among the jury. It was great to see a group of interested customers, taking their deliberation process seriously. My final observation would be that the Citizens’ Jury wouldn’t work without the help and input of experts, and the Yarra Valley Water staff in attendance – collaboration is the best way to solve fluid problems.