We have been following recent developments in the water sector with great interest. Regulators and representative organisations have all been actively considering what worked well in terms of customer engagement during the 2014 price review and, more importantly, what lessons can be learnt and applied to the next price review in 2019. There certainly were a lot of good things to report, not least the fact that, according to Ofwat, there were conversations with a quarter of a million people!

We attended a seminar recently convened by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) to brief the sector on the findings of their research into the future role of customer and stakeholder engagement in the water industry (details are here.) A key focus was exploring how conditions could be created ‘in which customer engagement and customer preferences would more clearly and decisively shape future price controls to the benefit of all parties in the process.

Ofwat and the Consumer Council for Water have also recently published influential papers which consider this issue (Ofwat’s water2020 overview and  CCWater’s A Step in the Right Direction.) Some of the recommendations cover Ofwat’s role and how Customer Challenge Groups should function next time round. However, of particular interest to us are the thoughts on how direct research and engagement with customers should be approached.

There is broad consensus on the importance of both sharing best practice and innovation, for example in CCwater’s statement:

“The diversity of customer research used by companies at PR14 should be reviewed to establish good practice methods that can be shared across industry for consideration at future price reviews5. This could improve the overall quality of research in future reviews through the take up of innovative practices.”

We are involved in some early discussions about how this might best be achieved, so watch this space.

Ofwat stresses the importance of meaningful engagement with customers, understanding different types of customers and engaging customers on long term issues as well as the short term. They state that ‘we want to see more evidence of companies putting customers at the heart of the way they run their businesses and make decisions – at all levels of the business. We also encourage companies to consider how they could work in partnership with their customers to design and deliver solutions (for example by managing demand) and consider the scope for more community-based approaches, where this is appropriate and efficient.”

This is very much in tune with Community Research’s ethos of using deliberative and co-production techniques to allow consumers to have a voice on even the most complex of issues. We very much welcome the direction of travel and look forward to supporting water companies in their ongoing journeys.


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