In developing its 5-year costed plan, Yarra Valley Water must pair customer and community feedback with their own in-depth knowledge of their water and sewerage networks, and the challenges these services face. Pricing cannot simply be an expert task.
Additionally, Yarra Valley Water is faced with the fact that water and sanitation services are not top-of-mind for most customers. Instead, their consciousness of the importance of these services is typically only elevated when access is compromised (for instance, through water restrictions, a water main burst or a sewer blockage/spills).
The community is often thought to be averse to increasing rates and raising household costs, based on their top of mind opinions, but we don’t know the considered view.
Yarra Valley Water’s 5-year plan will be judged successful only if its priorities are seen to reflect fair decision making based on evidence and a willingness to reflect customer and community priorities – not everything can be done, and the decision to invest in Option A rather than Option B needs to reflect a community view of what is important and fair.
The community must feel that they are part of the decision, not just the subject of it. The difficulty herein is that sufficiently engaging the community at a depth that reveals the difficulties within water and sewerage service provision is often hindered by the time investment required to do this well. The familiarity of water services, that they’re an everyday essential service, acts to gloss over the nuances involved in its provision and complexity.
It is not possible to both sufficiently inform Yarra Valley Water’s almost 2 million wide population base and facilitate a meaningful open public deliberation.
Hence, a 35 person citizens jury meeting over 5 days is the best method of engagement – to hand the time, resources, and authority to a descriptively representative slice of the community and empower them with the task of becoming sufficiently informed enough to participate in the weighing up of trade-offs within this service provision.
Getting past the default ‘something for nothing’ frame of reference that surrounds water and sewerage provision requires a method of public deliberation that allows the time and expertise required to bridge the gap between public opinion and public judgement. Sharing the problem with the community benefits Yarra Valley Water because it dramatically increases the depth of the engagement. Whilst also enabling the community to participate in a more equitable deliberative process that unpacks the water and sewerage process and helps to address the provision of an intergenerational essential service.
When the community sees ‘people like me’ engaging in high level co-planning exercises, they are significantly more likely to trust the complex trade-o decisions that need to be made. This process offers a way in which the community can co-plan aspects of an essential public service that facilitates meaningful deliberation on complex trade-offs, all the while producing a trusted public decision.
This process assists Yarra Valley Water in getting to the core of community concerns through considered engagement. In turn, it provides an unprecedented opportunity for the community to directly participate in a co-planning exercise on issues of intergenerational equity and trusted decision making.