Rebuilding trust in water

The departing chief executive of water consumer watchdog CCW talks to Ruth Williams about regaining trust, putting collaboration into action and why regulators need to have a joined-up message for the sector.

When Emma Clancy joined the water sector it tended not to trouble national newspaper headlines too often. However, a crisis was quietly brewing.

Since then the industry has been dragged from silent service to frontpage fodder as a public outcry around pollution entering waterways was conflated with existing concerns over everything from leaky pipes, to hosepipe bans and dividends.

As she prepares to move on from CCW later this month , Clancy talks to Utility Week about where the water industry is and where it needs to go, as well as the highs and lows of her time leading the organisation.

Since its formation in 2005, CCW has had just two leaders, with Clancy following Tony Smith’s decade-and-a-half focus on reducing complaints and improving the handling of those that remain, as well as pushing customer representation. With Clancy, the organisation had a shake-up and has been more active in voicing a much broader spectrum of customer concerns.

But she fears there are still limitations to what can be achieved if companies cannot connect with the people they serve on important messaging and align their priorities with those of customers.

She recalls one of her first impressions of the industry was its difficulty in explaining what it delivers in a way that people find accessible. “We don’t seem to be meeting people in their understanding or expectations of services, concerns and queries. It feels as if something gets lost in translation, which is no good for the sector or for customers.”

She sees this as a legacy of companies expecting apathy on the part of customers – a perception that has been challenged by the increasing focus on the sector. Recent polling has shown the state of our waterways emerging as a key issue for voters in the next general election.

“Now when there are challenges and issues that need explaining and for customers to understand, we’re starting from scratch. And that’s a really difficult place,” Clancy says.

Principally, Clancy points to the challenge of explaining why bill increases are necessary to ramp up investment in a climate of low trust in water companies.

She says: “As a sector, which I’m including regulators and CCW within, if we are serious about rebuilding trust, we need to be more prepared to give something up. Sector leadership is needed now more than ever.”

She adds: “We all need to listen to customers and be really willing to have the agenda at least partially set by the people being served rather than the agenda we choose.”

For this, Clancy suggests some fundamental shifts in how companies operate to involve greater representation for customers.

“At the moment what we’re willing to give up isn’t significant enough to shift the dynamic around trust.” She suggests this might mean relinquishing individual campaigns to support a national narrative around a shared issue, or reexamine the structures of how the sector is run. “Until we’re prepared to put those things on the table, we will struggle to rebuild trust.”

She describes the frustrations of making progress collaboratively until funds or deviations from existing plans are required.

“People talk a lot about partnership, and are very willing to come to meetings and move the debate. But when it comes to actually going back to their companies to make the change, that’s when we hit roadblocks,” Clancy explains. “Until people come to the table ready to have a national dialogue, progress cannot be made and it will be harder to rebuild trust.”

To continue reading Utility Week’s interview with Emma Clancy, click here to access the digital weekly edition where it first appeared

Mike Keil, the interim chief executive of CCW will be speaking at Utility Week Forum on 4 October. Find out more here.