By Miharu Hirano*
Public participation, as customer engagement, user involvement, accountability or transparency, is a concept increasingly discussed among water professionals. It aims to strengthening the relationship between water authorities and the users and the broader public. The Sustainable Development Goal 6 considers public participation to be an important means of implementation for all water-related targets.
Yet, too often, the benefits of public participation only become evident when failing to undergo the process results in controversies. Tariff-setting is a representational example. Unilateral revision of the price for water services without the social acceptance may bring controversies among users, no matter how accurately it is calculated.
However, it is not always easy for service providers to get people to participate in consultations before regulatory decision-making; more so, where urban water services are provided 24/7. Pipes are underground and hidden behind the walls; treatment plants are in off-limit areas. Water and wastewater works become less visible to the public eye—water is only to be seen as it flows from a tap to a sink, or stored in toilets. This results in a dilemma for water professionals: the more we want to ensure the quality and efficiency of water supply and sewage services, the less water is felt among people.
How can we encourage people to participate in water-related decision-making? This is a question of public communication that needs to be addressed before any attempt of public participation. On a situation such as a tariff increase, citizens will benefit from knowing the rationale behind that decision—is it to ameliorate the level of cost recovery, to increase resilience of infrastructure, or to subsidise the poor to increase equity? In communicating with the public, however, water professionals often rely on apocalyptic terms—scarcity, pollution, infrastructure degradation, budgetary constraints, etc.
“Where has the fun around water gone?” Resorting to games can bring the fun back, while educating the public about our wicked water problems. In this method, water-related information is not the primary focus, but it does get people’s attention towards water and sanitation services. Such an indirect form of engagement can take truly various forms. As was done for the World Water Day, photo contests or connecting water with art are also effective means of making people have fun learning and exploring how water connects us in our everyday life.
A slightly relaxed and enjoyable perspective of our work could be the first step towards innovation. Look at this symphony in the Estonian water treatment facility.
Interest in water and sanitation services does not need to come from water as such. Although to a smaller scale if compared to “Pokémon hunters”, there is an increasing number of “manhole cover hunters” in Japan. Peculiar design to each city, sometimes even colourful, Japanese manholes are now objects for collecting images. Though informal, the Japanese Society of Manhole Covers has a compiled set of manhole cover pictures shoot by people all around Japan and also abroad. The annual Manhole Summit is now hosted by the platform for the promotion of public communication for sewage works (GKP), who saw this niche boom as a potential. Early this year, the Summit attracted over 3,000 participants.
There are also collectors of manhole cover cards distributed by municipalities for free. Now that some cities started to produce English version (Tsukuba city), you may also join the manhole cover hunting in the occasion of the Tokyo World Water Congress & Exhibition in 2018.
Such indirect form of public communication strategy does no incidentally link to the social acceptance of raising tariffs or other controversial regulatory decisions. Nevertheless, making people aware about something unnoticed before, is an important first step. In the long run, it may make water close to people again and wishfully attract more people to participation processes in decision-making. Addition of a drop of pop to our professional work will not only make our daily task fun, but may also strengthen the relationship with the public.
Call for inputs—share your experience of public participation in tariff-setting
IWA initiated a project on public participation in the regulation of urban water services. For this year, focusing on tariff-setting process, it aims to raise awareness of the benefits of public participation and clarify misconceptions, provide guidance to incorporate or improve participation processes; all while enabling stakeholders to share experiences and lessons learned in their own participation methods to advance its benefits.
We would like to collect examples of public participation in tariff-setting context to learn about various inspiring practices for enriching the study. Please kindly fill in the survey (5-15 min) on the IWA Connect project page, or download this template and send it via e-mail to Miharu.Hirano@iwahq.org.