By David Zetland
The CWP wants to improve communication between water utilities and customers to “improve people’s access to clean drinking water by promoting consumption where water is already clean and improving quality where it is not.”
We began in Den Haag (The Hague) because that’s where LUC is located, and we wanted to see how easy (or hard) it was to involve locals in our efforts, talk to the utility (Dunea), etc.
In this post, I want to record how our “conversations” with Dunea went.
They did not start out well, as Dieneke’s attempts to chat with Dunea went from initially hopeful to “please use our existing outreach materials to understand how Dunea provides clean water.” Although we must agree that Dunea probably runs one of the best water treatment operations in the world (using sand dunes to filter river water, limited or no chemical treatment — e.g., no chlorine — and a 6 percent leakage rate in their system [pdf]), we were less concerned about water quality than the perception of water quality in the community. According to data from the city [Dutch], only half of Den Haag’s population is “autochtoon” (defined here as “both parents born in the NL,” which could be interpreted as “Dutch in culture” rather than as “Dutch in appearance” — but often isn’t). Of the remaining 250.000 people, only 20 percent fall into the “diplomat/expat” category that plays a big role in Den Haag’s life as an international city of justice and political capital of the Netherlands.* The question of interest, in other words, is how 200.000 people from Surinam, Turkey, Morocco, Eastern Europe, etc. perceive water quality in Den Haag.
After a few meetings and phone calls, I was able to chat with one of Dunea’s staff (DS) about the CWP, and he was supportive of helping us spread the word, but I didn’t get any response to my request that we have a meeting until CWP announced it was collecting survey data from anyone and everyone who would reply, in 5 languages (Dutch, English, Turkish, Arabic and Spanish).
Within 24 hours of sending out that email, I got an invitation to have a meeting with Dunea’s communications expert (CE), so she joined DS for us to talk about water quality.**
A good part of our conversation was about the CWP, and what we were trying to do. The CE was worried that even mentioning “water quality” could make customers nervous about trusting their drinking water, but she was fascinated by our attempt to connect with the 40 percent of their customers who may not have grown up with Dutch as a mother tongue. (Dunea’s website is only in Dutch.)
I’d love to say more about how we were brought into their strategic meetings to help us understand how Dunea communicates about water quality (I wanted them to publicize their tests of quality in random customers’ homes, for example), and for us to help them do a better job communicating with their broad customer base, but the CE did not return any of my follow up emails.
Bottom Line: Even the best run utilities have a hard time sitting on the other side of the table, to think of better ways to communicate with their customers.
* Amsterdam is the seat of the royal family (for historic reasons), but the government is based in Den Haag.
** I’m leaving names out of this post, as they are less relevant than the ideas. Let me also repeat the obvious, that this post collects my thoughts and facts on these communications, but I may be wrong or misguided in places.