DC Water, Editorial, Innovation

Good Government Puts People First


I’ve been thinking a lot about performance in the public sector, particularly as it relates to innovation. I know I am not the only one, because if you live in the Washington, DC area, you can’t help but think about the performance of many agencies, including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). In many ways, DC Water was in a very similar predicament when I started in 2009. It was the Authority’s nadir for a myriad of reasons but chief among it was that we had broken the public’s trust.

I have written before on how I approach revitalizing an enterprise here. While I think that post is a good summary, recent discussions about public agencies in our fair city have encouraged me to go a bit deeper.

Government agencies in general and service providers like DC Water and WMATA in particular are facing a crisis. Infrastructure across our country is failing whether it’s pipes, roads or rail. It is incumbent upon us to find new ways of doing business for our own survival. As systems crumble, the subsequent decline in service erodes public confidence. Faltering public trust then creates a vicious feedback loop – less patience, less support, declining performance, worse service and then more of the same. Does this sound familiar?

When confronting huge challenges we need the public to understand the scope of the work ahead, to be patient while we do it, and to help fund the needed improvements – even when the cost may be high and improvements will take time. This is nearly impossible when public trust is broken.

At DC Water, we’re trying new ideas that we hope will cut costs and generate new revenue streams while continuing to improve our level of customer service. So far, our customers have been very patient with us. We have had to raise rates, which have doubled since 2009, to fund reinvestment in our water infrastructure, meet increasingly more stringent regulations and satisfy our court-mandated $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project.

We have had to earn that patience and trust from our customers through relentless improvement in the manner and method in which we serve our customers. I guess the key question is what did we do, and what are we still doing? I want to emphasize up front that every agency is different and I have no corner on wisdom. Yet I also believe our experience may be helpful to others seeking to transform a public enterprise. Periodically, as an example, I will assess in part how these thoughts apply to WMATA.

Value Your People

I suggest that a new leader first invest a good amount of time learning about the enterprise from the ground up, on the inside. No matter what a new leader is going to do, the vast majority of the people carrying out the work in a public enterprise will have been there when the new executive starts and will stay there long after the executive has moved on. I have never liked it when a new leader comes to a place and launches all sorts of new directions even before they have an idea what has been done before and what has worked and what has not. Understanding your organization and listening to the existing crew, means that every new idea can be shaped to recognize and fit the reality of the enterprise. Many existing efforts that are working well can be highlighted even as other work is changed. The people who work there are more likely to feel consulted and be invested in change.

Many of the comments I heard about DC Water and Sewer Authority (DC WASA) (as we were known in 2009) are similar to what I have heard about WMATA – which was that the organization had a problem with its personnel and service. Many suggested when I arrived that I should simply “clean house.” I am glad I did not. I started by attending small group meetings with almost all staff at every level. I asked a few open questions and then listened. I heard all sorts of complaints about obstacles that staff felt kept them from doing well, and heard a deep insult and hurt about the perception that they were not hard working and dedicated. I felt there was still a deep sense of pride in the mission, even if it was wounded and buried. If we could give our team better tools and reconnect to a sense of pride, performance would improve right out of the gate.

Identify Your Core Mission

The second step is to identify and engage a core value to rally the team and initiate a new relationship with the people whom we serve. For DC WASA, we realized our core value is founded on providing clean water that is fundamental to every living organism and required for every job. This value drove us to rebrand in 2009 with a clean and fresh logo that separated us from the other stodgy government logos.

When I first started wearing a DC WASA uniform, a customer mistook me for a Department of Corrections employee! That doesn’t happen anymore because my uniform has big green letters that read “DC” followed by a big blue water drop. It’s pretty clear who we are and what we do. Our brand is present on our team members, our vehicles and every piece of communication that a customer ever receives from us, whether it is on paper or in a tweet.

We wanted a visible representation of our commitment to a service that matters to us, and to everyone we serve. Internally, we also engaged in an effort to support our front line staff focused on “Team Blue” – connected again to water and the notion that we had to work together to achieve this important outcome.

What I remember most vividly was the tangible sense of purpose that was rekindled on our team, and the opportunity we had to engage in a new relationship with our customers. Our employees were tired of being criticized and responded quickly to the reminder that their work is fundamental to every life in our region.

I actually do not believe that a rebranding of Metro would be helpful at this point – it might strike the public as trying to put marketing gloss to hide deeper problems. But connected to the next point, developing a simple core value to rally both internal morale and to embody a new commitment to customer service and public safety would be helpful.

Put Your Customers First

In parallel with reconnecting to a core value, the enterprise must rally around providing better service to the customer, little by little perhaps, but relentlessly better each day. That goal must start with an effort to communicate with customers and listen to them, which is the only way to demonstrate this focus before the substantive work can proceed.

For DC Water, the challenge is that most of our services are hidden underground. Yet while our successes in improving on those buried assets may be invisible, the manner in which our staff and I interact with our customers has been a game changer. We respect our customers and we try everyday to communicate that our work is centered on them.

So how do we communicate to our customers that we value them? First, we made ourselves visible through our DC Water rebranding effort. DC and the waterdrop are visible all over the city now and a vibrant presence on social media.

Second, I’m a believer in “No news is not good news.” A customer doesn’t just see or hear from us when there’s a problem. We take every opportunity to engage our customers and to tell them our story and the value that we provide seamlessly and invisibly every. single. day. I’m still surprised by the number of people in DC who know that the median age of our water pipes is 79 years old!

Our rebranding isn’t just a slick logo. It’s the substantive work behind that logo that matters most. Once we got our customers’ attention, we made sure to listen when they spoke. It may sound obvious but I think this is where public agencies fall short. If we made a mistake, we own it. Then we fix it. We don’t hide from them. We’re not where we need to be just yet. We can still do better but without acknowledging that, how else will we improve?

Our approach is to adopt an honest straightforward response to every water main break or flood – and engage the public in their neighborhoods to explain what is happening, why it happened, and what we are doing to get better. The perception during the lead crisis of the 2000’s is that DC WASA was not forthcoming about the problem, its extent or the steps needed to protect the public. Today, if we even feel there may be a problem with our drinking water that might cause a risk to public health, we call the alert, notify everyone using every available communication channel, including walking door-to-door.

I have been amazed about how much our customers appreciate that we put their health first and are proactive. Perhaps it is counter intuitive, but the more transparent we have been about every problem and our response to the issue, the more supportive our customers have become.

Putting Customers First Means Putting Safety First

If it is possible to have two “firsts” – then prioritizing safety is concomitant with prioritizing customers. This means safety for the customer and safety for the employees. Engaging every tool we have highlighted above, we were honest at DC Water – with ourselves and our customers – about all the challenges we faced. We did walk-through’s with our personnel at every facility and generated our own list of issues that needed to be resolved. I personally looked into problems that our customers faced and talked to them and our team about what we needed to do to respond. We report on safety indices at every Board meeting and start EVERY staff meeting with a safety moment.

And guess what – similar to experiences for companies in the private sector – enterprises that are good at safety are better at customer service, better at quality control, and have better morale. Improving safety helps improve every other performance measure for an enterprise.

When I visit work in the field and do not have on the appropriate safety gear, DC Water field staff does not allow me to cross the yellow tape or pass the safety markers. That is exactly as it should be, and is one measure that enables me to know that our teams are working well, and returning home safely at the end of the day to their loved ones. That means our customers are also safer, too.

Turnarounds Need Big Ideas

Make No Small Plans. Building on the fundamentals, a public agency needs to think big as well. How can we take exciting significant steps that can leap our performance forward? At DC Water, even as we worked hard to get the basics right, we were planning a $470 million waste to energy plant, new technologies to change the industry, new financing strategies to help fund our work, and programs to engage every employee to offer ideas to improve our work. Every organization needs to capture the imagination of their employees and customers alike. Excitement catches fire and builds on itself. Just like the vicious cycle I started with above – enabling new ideas and improvements can create a virtuous cycle of improved service and customer support.

Putting these pieces together in a dynamic plan can be done. And once that plan is developed at WMATA, I would encourage them to be completely transparent. Share all the elements of the program with the public – assessment documents, plans, strategies, reports, accomplishments, problems – EVERYTHING. Make it visible, highlight what needs be done, highlight what resources are needed, and then document how the enterprise is relentlessly charging forward to get it done.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers and every organization is different. DC Water had a huge mountain to climb, and we know we are only as good as what we do tomorrow – and must continue to improve. Certainly, WMATA faces unique challenges and has a lot of hard work ahead of it. It needs to replace old trains, old tracks, perhaps add a tunnel – and all of that will require a massive investment in dollars and patience from their customers. If they expect that to happen, they should prioritize their riders. That means talking to their customers and more importantly, listening to their thoughts, concerns and priorities. I’m sure WMATA’s riders will help craft one heckuva mission statement.

I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this isn’t a heavy lift. Even at DC Water it’s still a work in progress. For all of our improvements, do I still get called an idiot? Absolutely, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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One Comment

  • You may remember, but other blog readers would likely not, that my comments to DC Water’s Board at the Rate Hearing earlier this year ended with a not-entirely-jestful suggestion that DC Water merge with WMATA, that being a way to get your mind and approach into leadership there without losing you from DC Water. Anyway, I respect your blog and will read it as it develops. L

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