Evolving regulations, aging infrastructure, cyber security, and climate change are all reasons utilities are looking to improve their resiliency. Resiliency can be broadly defined as the sustainability of an organization across its triple bottom line – the financial, social, and environmental impacts of their operations. The best way utilities can achieve resiliency is to integrate it into their strategic planning and ensure there are performance measurement initiatives in place to track progress.
Being a resilient utility initially referred to its resilience against the potential impacts of climate change. In recent years, resiliency has come to encapsulate a much more comprehensive set of conditions that ensure a utility is prepared to weather more than just the storms in our skies. Resiliency today refers more broadly to all the potential challenges that can influence a utility’s future, such as a changing workforce, economic conditions, and customer expectations. So what does a resilient water utility look like? A resilient water utility has the following characteristics:
As utility operations become more complex, interconnected and technology-enhanced, many utilities are seizing opportunities to make improvements that enhance their resiliency. The challenges of this pursuit are vast and distinct for each utility based on local politics, regional climate, governance structures, socioeconomic conditions, historical investment levels, and immediate priorities that may repeatedly delay action. Strategic planning helps utilities make progress in meaningful ways and provides a format for measuring progress against specific objectives.
Raftelis has helped utilities around the country incorporate resiliency into their operations through strategic planning. The process is customized for each utility but often includes: facilitation of internal team workshops; a SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) analysis and risk assessment; community engagement to understand perceptions and expectations; plan development and communication; and of course metrics to measure progress. Here are some examples.
In DC Water’s Blue Horizon 2020 strategic plan, they identified 10 industry trends driving their success, such as energy, political environment, and the organizational risk profile of the utility. From these 10 trends they then identified six goal areas to help them achieve success amidst the trends. These goals included Increasing Board Focus on Strategic Direction; Financial Sustainability; and Safety and Security. Each goal area then has its own action plan – a living plan to be monitored annually and updated every 3-5 years. The success of Blue Horizon 2020 served as the foundation for DC Water’s Blueprint 2.0 Strategic Plan update as well as new ESG reporting initiatives that are increasing organizational focus on resiliency.
Raftelis’ strategic planning implementation support for the City of Brownsville, Texas’ Public Utilities Board is helping drive measurement and outcomes across six resiliency issue areas: Customer and Community Engagement, Workforce Development and Continuity, Organizational Preparedness and Resiliency, Process Improvement, Reliable Infrastructure, and Technology and Innovation. For each of these issues the City identified key activities and responsible staff, established regular performance reporting and celebrations of successes, and identified ongoing areas of focus over time to maintain progress.
Writing the strategic plan is actually the easy part. Implementing it and tracking progress is the real work. Once strategic plan goal areas are defined, measurable objectives for each goal must be created by the teams who will be executing them. These success metrics must be agreed upon by leadership, then be refined, tracked, and communicated to all impacted stakeholders at appropriate levels of granularity.
Measuring progress helps to ensure accountability, increases buy-in, identifies gaps and areas for improvement, and promotes successes. A performance dashboard can be a useful tool for educating staff and the public about the costs, benefits, uncertainties, and risks of resiliency investments. Some utilities choose to develop multiple dashboards with varying degrees of technical detail for internal and external audiences. Raftelis has worked with several communities to develop online dashboards that formalize resiliency measurement as part of organizational performance assessment.
One example is the Headwaters performance dashboards developed for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), which centered around five strategic plan goals areas: Protect Public Health and the Environment; Ensure Customer and Stakeholder Satisfaction; Improve Infrastructure Reliability; Maintain a High-Performing Workforce; and Be an Efficient and Effective Organization. The dashboard drives organizational accountability internally and externally. In fact, PWSA references goals for metrics ranging from permit review times to lead service line replacements and encourages customers to see how they’re doing by visiting the Headwaters website. In this way, performance measurement has become not just a way to measure progress, but also a tool to engage customers and build trust.
Resiliency isn’t just a buzzword. It has become increasingly vital for utility success. Strategic plans are a key way for utilities to incorporate resiliency into operations. But writing the plan is only a small part of the work. Executing the plan and measuring and sharing progress is where the real benefits emerge. By increasing strategic plan visibility and progress through tools like publicly accessible performance dashboards, utilities can increase their resiliency, engage the public in their work, and build support for their organizations while doing so.