Dr Jon Lamonte: Raising the bar on community engagement


Dr Jon Lamonte is our chief executive. Here, he shares his opinion on raising the bar on community engagement. This opinion piece was published in the NZ Herald.

In the world we live in today, the importance of genuine engagement with our customers and communities can’t be underestimated. The next few years could see a huge amount of change in the public sector – our health system is being centralised, submissions have just closed on the Future for Local Government review and, of course, water reform is high on the agenda.
Those wary of centralisation are often fearful that the voice of local communities will be lost. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

As Auckland’s provider of water and wastewater services, we have a duty to involve our customers in our decision-making.
The Watercare of old – when we were a water wholesaler serving Auckland’s legacy councils – thought we knew what was best for our communities and we’d communicate with them on a need-to-know basis. Send out a newsletter to let them know what was coming – residents informed, job done.
I’m relieved to say we’ve come a long way since then. We’ve been on a journey from being an infrastructure-focussed organisation to one that puts customers at the heart of everything we do.
The way I see it, our sole purpose is to make life better for the communities we serve. Yes, we provide safe drinking water and treat wastewater to keep our waterways clean, but it’s also about being a good neighbour – we need to understand how our operations and infrastructure projects impact on people’s lives, and get a good grasp on what’s important to them.

Our customers have a right to understand how and why we make the decisions we do. Ultimately, we invest billions of dollars of their money, and we’re accountable to them.

When we’re planning infrastructure – whether it’s to support population growth or replace ageing assets – we need to balance the needs of the community in which we’ll be working with the need to protect the environment and manage costs. This can make for tricky conversations and, inevitably, we won’t please everyone all of the time.

But by starting these conversations early and by being transparent about the issues we face, we can get our customers’ perspectives early on, avoiding potential adverse engagements, challenges and sometimes costs and delays down the line.

It’s also as simple as just doing the right thing.

When I worked on Royal Air Force bases, it was crucial that we maintained good relationships with our neighbours. Sometimes we’d be flying noisy old aircraft at odd hours to far-off destinations – we probably weren’t the easiest folks to have over the fence. But talking to them regularly, inviting them for behind-the-scenes tours of the base, went a long way to build up a stock of goodwill. The result of this basic but genuine, human-to-human engagement meant our neighbours were among our strongest ambassadors.

There are, of course, risks: when you engage early and with the best intentions, there’s potential for the situation to change, impeding your ability to deliver a project or outcome in the way you first thought possible. But if you’ve invested time in building trust, your community will, at the very least, hear you out. They may not be happy about the need to pivot on the original plan, but they’ll understand where you’re coming from, and may be able to guide you on the best path forward.
At Watercare, I’d be the first to say we haven’t always got this right. But we’re getting better every day – and not just on a project-by-project basis, but with big picture thinking too.
This month, 12,000 of our (randomly-selected) customers received an invitation in their letterboxes or inboxes to have their say on Auckland’s water future. It’s part of our work with Koi Tū, The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, on the country’s first trial of a citizens’ assembly for decision-making.
The 12,000 people invited have been whittled down to a group of 40 to form a representative sample of our city – by age group, ethnicity, gender, home ownership, education, and place of residence. They’ll get a unique opportunity to learn about the potential options for Auckland’s next future water source and the various trade-offs and challenges that come with each option. After four full-day workshops, they’ll make a formal recommendation to us on what our next source or sources of water should be.
We’re not replacing traditional forms of public engagement or decision-making. But what excites me about this trial is that it’ll garner the views of people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to have their say on a topic like this. It’s something that will have an impact on all of us, and generations to come. It warrants a bit more effort to get the quieter voices heard.