The UK water industry has launched a new leadership group to shake up approaches to water efficiency, and increase customer participation in resilience projects. The group's chair Jean Spencer and panel member Nicci Russell talk to Utility Week about its significance.

Why is the group needed?

Jean Spencer: We started talking to Waterwise about how could we make sure that its national water efficiency strategy was delivered – looking at not just the practical things that companies do like retrofitting, but how do we look at customer engagement. At the same time, Ofwat produced its ‘Tapped In’ report on customer engagement.

Nicci and I thought it would be a good idea if we got the companies together – not the normal efficiency practitioners, but the customer service leads – and made [water efficiency] part of what companies do across the board.

Nicci Russell: As you’d imagine, there has been lots of work done on resilience and water efficiency. Our strategy – which will launch 19 June – is a blueprint for what the UK could look like if we all really valued water and pulled together on water efficiency. There are shared actions across the sector on that, so we were thinking: ‘how can we join up the dots within companies and also share best practice across the sector, so that we’re using water efficiency not just as a tool for resilience, but also for customer participation’.

Do you have any plans to include retailers and non-household customers?

JS: It’s mostly household customers, because the customer service directors are very focussed on household.

NR: It’s the wholesale companies that we’ve invited to this group. We talked about extending membership at the first meeting, and we decided that it’s a nice group as it is. It’s a safe space to share ideas and discuss how we could raise the level of ambition in the sector and within the individual companies.

What are the aims of the group?

NR: To share best practice across the sector. We had a great first session, where people were talking about what they do already and sharing ideas. A lot of what the group is about is sharing those ideas and, in some cases, scaling them up.

Another part of it is ensuring water efficiency is seen by companies as a strategic issue that we can use to get customers more involved, and not just as a tool for resilience (which is a very important aspect of water efficiency).

JS: Water efficiency is one of those areas where companies have been incredibly transparent and collaborative in sharing best practice. This is an area where we want to try and preserve that spirit of collaboration. When it comes to water resources we all face the same challenges.

Also, customer engagement around behaviour change – how customers value water and changing their behaviour – is quite a new and innovative area. It is really helpful if we can share our experiences of what’s working and what isn’t working.

We will look to bring in speakers – from other sectors, and academics – to stimulate thoughts as to how we can move this forward.

How many water companies have put forward members?

NR: We’ve had a positive response from all of the water companies – the entirety of the UK wholesale water sector. In some cases it’s chief customer officers, in some cases it’s customer services directors – both on the exec teams of their companies, and some of the water-only companies are sending their managing directors as well. One of the things we wanted to do with this group was to raise the profile of water efficiency within companies.

What are the group’s main plans going forward?

JS: Sharing best practice, but also looking at opportunities for us to work together where we need a national voice to inform policy. We’re looking at where we can influence as a group as opposed to individual companies.

NR: We also thought it would be useful for Waterwise to continue to continue to help and challenge companies on levels of ambition. So, we will continue to table a series of questions that would be private within the group, that say could you answer this within your company, to prompt joining up of some of the dots if it’s not happening already.

We have decided upon, and attendees have signed up to, our commitment: “As a Leadership Group member I commit to promoting water efficiency as a strategic issue within my organisation; utilising it to engage customers and increase their participation. Further, I commit to using the Leadership Group to learn and share best practice, in order to raise ambition in the UK water industry.”

JS: We just really want to emphasise that the companies do take water efficiency seriously, they’ve been looking at it for a long time, and this is just a different way of looking at it.

NR: To make sure that we’re making the best use of all the opportunities that are there.

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