Blog: Smoke On the Water

According to the latest (15 July) news release buried in the update section of its website, ‘Open Water strengthens plans to raise customer awareness of the new business retail water market in England’. Curious, no? Not, ‘will raise awareness’, or ‘makes dramatic intervention’, but ‘strengthens’ its plan to have a plan.

Elsewhere, in similarly adrenalized, white-knuckle language it explains a breathless timeline which will see a survey take place this month to gauge awareness, before further plans are finalised. Maybe awareness is already sky high. Just over six months to go before the opening of a new £2.5 billion competitive market, why all the rush?

It’s alarmingly informative to navigate the pages of the Ofwat, Open Water, MOSL and Defra sites which between them offer tantalising clues as to what’s happening. The Water Act of 2014 is the consistent start point, as is an explanation of everyone’s constitutional remit, so you get to work out for yourself the responsibilities and accountabilities of the market.

To be fair, Ofwat does offer a process diagram with twenty odd boxes, three different coloured strata of activity phases, and a blizzard of acronyms referring to market players. The diagram itself is sponsored by Nurofen, in a typically creative and inspired piece of customer support.

Nowhere though, is there a simple piece of video telling it like it is in a way that any man-in-street SME might understand. The ‘Whose idea this was; who is taking responsibility for making it work, the upsides to seek out; and the downsides to avoid’ boring stuff you might expect. None.

Customers who have not kept up to date with government legislative programmes or water industry structural reform will only have themselves to blame for confusion once those ‘strengthened’ plans are unleashed. Any complaints, you can write to Ofwat. Or is it MOSL? Defra? Open Water. But Open Water is Ofwat, isn’t it? Pass me that diagram again.

Why am I so worked up about this? Well, we have had this before, in Scotland. A retail market launch, or opening rather, because the one thing you cannot accuse WIC’s, CMA, the water industry or even Scottish Water of which I was part, of, was ‘launching’ the market. A press release somewhere, some pages on the web, ‘Dear Business Owner’ letters and that was it. The market just kind of came into being. Water still flowed from taps, drains drained and toilets continued to flush.

An unmitigated success. Savvy big businesses with procurement departments studied forms and diagrams and got their deals. Smaller businesses cheered at the novelty when they received bills from businesses they claimed never to have heard of, developers revelled in the new games of shadow-chasing when seeking a new connection, the flurry of ambulance-chasing scare letters (‘You have been ripped off by your water company for the last x years’) sent by intermediaries added to the pot of goodwill, and politicians relished the piles of constituency correspondence from those bewildered by the change. And when the same politicians asked their naïve questions as above – who is in charge here? – we all pointed fingers at each other and dug out charts. Which explained the lack of launch.

Of course none of this will come to pass in England and Wales. Web and social media are much less popular than nine years ago so there will be no online protest threads and YouTube stuff of bills held to camera. It’s a much easier sell to a small business in say, Bristol, that they are overnight the new customer of a publicly owned Scottish accountancy income term than it was in Scotland. And no one will be looking for a smoking gun link to an interpretation of European Competition policy just to make political capital. Who could possibly predict any of that?

And if any of this materialises? Best for all the acronymed players mentioned to be sanguine and accept the loss of confidence, credibility and ultimately influence that happens when politicians address a vacuum. Or a perceived vacuum…

Unless of course, success means those things are actually enhanced by the opening, and the leadership, passion and sheer emotion with which you have attacked it. In which case, one can only imagine that right now people are locked in a room with a ticking deadline clock, and there are all kinds of scenario planning and mitigations and frantic efforts going on so as to be seen to be doing everything possible and beyond to get the word out that change is coming, and a part of that means Regulators acting in an entirely different way but one that is appropriate in a digital, post age-of-reason £2.5bn flagship market opening kind of way. Maybe that’s what they mean by strengthening the plans.