Building bridges to successful community engagement
The water crisis in Cape Town is a stark reminder of things to come for many communities across the world as we struggle with changes in rainfall patterns, more severe storms and also increased cost in maintaining and operating complex water infrastructure. And for regional and remote service providers lacking both financial and human resources, the challenges can be even more daunting.
Research produced by the Queensland Water Directorate (qldwater) and funded through the Queensland Water Regional Alliances Program (QWRAP), highlighted the need for better stakeholder engagement programs to address these challenges in order to build stronger, more resilient communities.
Bridging the gaps
According to qldwater Communications Manager Desiré Gralton, the barriers to successful engagement in regional communities centre around limited skills and resources, with technical and/or operations staff often expected to do community engagement as well.
“We also found a lack of communication between different departments within Councils and, where Councils do employ communications and media teams, they often lack an understanding of the challenges faced by operators, technical staff and managers.”
To help bridge the gap between Council departments, and between local and state governments, qldwater piloted a Community Engagement in Action Workshop with Southern Downs Regional Council, ultimately aiming to develop a roadmap towards effective community engagement with a specific focus on water demand management.
Why water demand management?
By influencing residents to decrease their water usage, Councils can effectively counteract the need for more costly water infrastructure and delay or remove the need to enter into deeper water restrictions that impact the whole community. Delayed infrastructure spending offers a strong business case to build waterwise communities, and good stakeholder engagement can contribute significantly to successful project outcomes whilst enhancing the service level provided to the community.
Ms Gralton said Water Demand Management programs needed to be carefully designed to be responsive to the broad range of attitudes within all communities, and the ‘political will’ to continue such programs will vary from place to place and over time driven by water availability, climate and community needs.
“By developing Management Plans in consultation with the community, service providers can be better prepared and provide a consistent, ongoing response to the drought-flood cycle so distinctive of most Queensland communities. An informed community that understands the local issues can be more supportive and provide input for more informed decisions.”
Piloting community water taste test events
In the lead up to the community engagement planning workshop, qldwater trailed the concept of community water taste tests at two popular events in the Southern Downs region: one at the Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Festival, and one at the Warwick Show. The aim of these sessions was to provide key messages and gain community feedback as a third party not closely related to Council.
Participants put their taste buds to the test, selecting a winner from five samples - four from the different water treatment plants in the SDRC area and one mystery sample of bottled water.
“We asked the community which sample they liked best, and which sample they believed to be bottled water. Interestingly, fewer than 25% of participants could pick the bottled water from the other samples,” Ms Gralton said.
Water from Southern Downs Regional Council’s Killarney drinking water scheme ultimately won the People’s Choice Award for the best tasting tap water in the region.
Participants were asked three more questions to go into a draw to win a water efficient sprinkler prize pack, kindly donated by Wobble Tee. We found that:
- Participants were evenly divided on the question whether the Southern Downs region had enough water to supply its community well into the future;
- 76% of participants said they used water efficient products like low flow showerheads and sprinklers at home; and
- not many people knew that Storm King Dam was the main source of water for Stanthorpe, but most people in Warwick knew where their water came from.
Ms Gralton said the taste test was a great conversation starter which allowed discussions across a broad range of water-related issues including water sources, treatment options, preparing for climate change and the value of using water efficient products at home and at work.
Exploring future engagement opportunities
Following the two community events, qldwater brought together a wide range of Council staff and experienced facilitators to explore contents and options for future engagement on water security issues to underpin the development of a Water Efficiency Plan.
Speakers included Sue Larsen from the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, and Jason Lange and Simon Igloi who brought with them a wealth of experience working on demand management strategies for Townsville City Council.
The workshop provided an overview of best practice demand management case studies ranging from cheap and simple gardening competitions based on the free Waterwise resources provided by the DNRME, to more costly marketing campaigns like Cairns Regional Council’s Thrive campaign. Some relied on new technologies, like the smart water meters installed at Mackay Regional Council which allow them to target specific messages to individual households rather than hit-and-miss mass marketing campaigns.
Making a business case
Simon Igloi, Senior Officer Coastal Catchments at Townsville Water and Waste, acknowledged the fact that few Councils would spend money on environmental work, so the engagement team at Townsville had to provide a strong business case for any of the work they were planning to do.
“In the end, the delayed duplication of a $260 million pipeline clinched the deal and provided us with funding to build a better understanding of patterns of water use. The end-use analysis research showed that 70% of residents water was used outdoors, and that water use increased by an astonishing 600% during dry times - something that happens a lot in Townsville!”
The research prompted Council to look at tactics like rebates and retrofits, audit sheets and waterwise programs aimed at education, motivation and enabling residents to do the right thing.
ason Lange from Ecocentric Services explained how Townsville campaigns combined a number of behavioural science approaches including two proven methodologies: Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) and thematic communication.
CBSM techniques were used to shortlist the targeted behaviours, which was then followed up with thematic communication to craft messages that resonated with the community. The idea around thematic communication is to provoke thought in meaningful ways and then follow up with information.
To shortlist the behaviours that needed to be targeted, Townsville started with a long list of 71 and narrowed it down by looking at impact (what volumetric gain could be achieved?), probability (how likely is it that people will do what you ask them to do?), and penetration (how many people are already doing it?).
For example, asking people to install a water tank could have big volumetric gains, but tanks cost a lot of money and other barriers like insufficient space, concern about run-off from roofs etc would mean less likelihood of uptake. Low-flow sprinklers have a similar volumetric gain and are much easier for people to make the switch to, especially through an exchange program or other incentives.
The resulting Great Sprinkler Swap campaign proved to be extremely popular, and Council’s investment in more efficient sprinklers saved significant amounts of water without the customer having to do anything but swap something old for something new.
Townsville also trialled smart meters with 300 households, and the data obtained validated previous assumptions - when it rains the water use goes down, which wouldn’t be the case if the water was being used indoors. Another factor compounding the extreme outdoor water use was the large amount of new developments in the Townsville region, with households struggling to establish new lawns in compacted, clay soil.
The final, end state behaviour that was selected to target in a campaign was to water no more than twice per week when dry, and never when wet. To remove the communities perceived barriers to adopting this desired behaviour ‘Bradley the Lawn Tamer’ was born.
Technical experts in water, soil, turf and irrigation worked together on a set of Townsville specific lawn training tools, videos and subsidies for efficient watering, lawn species, soils, fertilising, irrigation and leak detection.
According to Simon, it was interesting to see how different demographics responded to different messages during years of message testing.
“While older people wanted to save water, the younger generation was more interested in saving time. Bradley showed this cohort how to save 13 Sundays per year in mowing just by using a different lawn type.”
Collective Social Learning
The workshop finished off with an interactive session where Jason Lange used a collective learning cycle to help the group uncover meaningful actions for themselves
with a focus question in mind. The first stage (What should be?) involved the groups dreaming big and reimagining what the region should look like into the future.
The second session (What is?) grounded participants in reality by asking them to identify the things and people that enable and disable them from achieving the reimagined future.
“What could be?” prompted participants to explore collaboration opportunities and come up with fresh ideas for change, before finally committing to do something within their power and authority to work towards the ideals, in answer to the question “What can be?”
The final report on the outcomes of the workshop is currently being developed, and qldwater aims to share the learnings with other regional service providers.