Water drops

+ The relationship between public utilities and their customers is fundamentally different to that between private utilities and their customers.

How do you view your relationship with the utilities that provide you with water, power and other essential services? Do you see yourself as a citizen or a customer? I think utilities should play closer attention to these questions, because the answers have a significant impact on people’s behaviour. 

If your energy or water supply comes from a public utility, then I think it makes you feel like a citizen. You may well pay for the service through indirect taxation or a diluted route such as rates, which gives you a sense of ownership; you feel part of the city that supplies you.

Importantly, I think it also gives you a sense of duty to your fellow citizens. So when there are issues such as flooding or droughts you’re more likely to want to act for the common good. For example, you’d be more willing to reduce your water consumption to ensure everyone else in your city has enough.

The relationship between a customer and a private utility is much more transactional. If your utility company is private, you view buying your water in the same way you view other purchases – like groceries or haircuts. You expect your money to buy you a certain standard of service and you have no sense of connection with the organisation that provides it.

For example, I recently travelled to Australia, where water provision is a public service. There I was asked to share the latest thinking from the UK on water customers, where private companies run water provision. I explained that the context needs careful consideration.

The UK may have plenty of experience to share about how people behave as water customers, but is this really relevant to Australia? Australians may well perceive themselves to be citizens rather than customers, and have a fundamentally different relationship to their water utilities as they are all public owned, for example Sydney Water, unlike the privatised water utilities in England and Wales such as Thames Water Utilities Ltd.

In the UK, the Pitt Review that followed the floods of 2007 recommended much more multi-agency working across the water cycle. Who should lead this: private water companies or public agencies? This subtle context could influence how such initiatives engage the public, for example if a Local Authority or the Environment Agency led a multi-agency scheme rather than a Water Company.

I think it’s time to acknowledge that not everyone is a water customer – some people are water citizens – and that those two are fundamentally different things.