Community Engagement: A Key Component of Successful Infrastructure Projects

By Rebecca Zito

Effective community engagement has become a crucial part of water utility operations. Because public expectations have changed dramatically, the silent utility provider is an outdated concept. Communities now demand more from their utility.

Modern technology and convenience have forever altered the way people live. They now expect the same accessibility and speed across all digital experiences— from making online purchases to paying their water bills.

Water utility providers recognize that public and stakeholder support can play a major part in the long-term success of water infrastructure projects. Transparent communication and using the right technology can help alleviate any resistance or backlash from the community as projects take place.

The ever-growing demand for constant accessibility means that public engagement must be transparent, adaptable and community-focused. Here’s how water utility providers can deploy effective engagement strategies when executing water infrastructure initiatives:

1. Be as transparent as possible when communicating.

The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA) serves 465,000 residents and businesses in the city and its many surrounding communities. As part of a $1.4 billion water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure program, we are rebuilding and updating large-scale pumping and water distribution pieces, replacing aging water mains, rehabilitating sewer pipes and constructing new stormwater infrastructure.

To build awareness and inform the community about these projects, we use social media to highlight construction activity and develop engaging videos that feature innovative construction techniques used to complete this work.

Community meetings, hosted virtually or in-person, are an opportunity to share information, answer questions and welcome input from residents in the project area. We are honest about how construction activity will impact their lives and transparent about the benefits of restoring Pittsburgh’s water infrastructure. 

Meeting customers where they are is essential for sharing information. Some of our customers prefer to receive project updates via email alerts or phone calls, whereas others pay more attention to doorhangers and one-on-one conversations with the project team. We also direct customers to the PWSA website, which contains relevant information on ongoing projects and future upgrades. For projects that have a larger story to tell, we develop detailed project brochures and send them to residents within the project area. Our focus is on transparency and keeping residents informed.

2. Don’t underestimate the power of community partnerships.

We’ve had great success with creating advisory groups that include community stakeholders and partners. When launching programs that are new to the utility or might impact large groups of customers, developing a diverse group of involved community representatives helps identify any challenges prior to an initiative’s launch.

Some of these groups only meet for a limited period of time, whereas we develop long-term partnerships with others to boost community engagement and maintain an ongoing dialogue.

This two-way conversation focuses on awareness and understanding. These opportunities allow anyone directly impacted by an expanded service or new program to voice any concerns, questions or hesitations.

3. Use the right technology.

Technology allows us to keep families, individuals and communities informed about the projects happening in their neighborhood. Although face-to-face interactions with the communities we serve are very important, digital communication plays an essential role in the development of any water infrastructure strategy.

A digital communication solution not only benefits utility customers, but also helps organizations like the PWSA allocate resources correctly and improve operational efficiencies.

If one of our customers is curious about an ongoing project and doesn’t have the time to attend a community meeting or call us, they can go to our website to review the meeting summary or watch the recording. If they have questions, the contact information for key members of the project team is posted to the project webpage. From there, they can email the project manager or communications specialist directly.

The recent launch of our new Customer Advantage portal has enhanced customer engagement, provided more self-service features and made it easier for customers to manage their PGH2O account under one username and password. One of the changes we hope to incorporate is the ability to email customers directly. This will enhance customer engagement even further, making it easier to share information about projects, customer assistance programs, water quality and more.

4. Stay flexible and be willing to adapt.

The Four Mile Run Stormwater project is an upcoming initiative that will focus on the construction of a stormwater-only pipeline in one of Pittsburgh’s low-lying neighborhoods along the Monongahela River. After an in-depth review process with Pennsylvania state regulators, we plan to initiate the redesign in 2023. This project will redirect stormwater from the neighborhood to the river. 

With the focus now on the stormwater-only pipeline, our original project plans were significantly altered. Our most recent interaction with the community was handled with special care. We hosted a hybrid meeting, so residents had the option to join either in-person or virtually. We also reached out to project stakeholders in advance to have a candid conversation about the new direction of the project and understand any potential concerns.  

During the community meeting, we shared details of the stormwater initiative and the benefits of constructing a separate stormwater pipe. We also explained why some of the original project components must wait until a later phase. This community has lived with ongoing basement flooding and backups during times of heavy rainfall. There were many questions, and we’ve made sure to make ourselves available to answer them and adapt our strategy when necessary.

5. Customer engagement helps garner community support.

Transparency, awareness, adaptability and ongoing communication are important parts of successful water infrastructure projects. These two-way conversations can help initiatives run more smoothly, and the relationships developed between the water utility and community will benefit both groups for years to come.

Rebecca Zito is senior manager of public affairs for the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority. She is an accomplished communications professional with nine years of experience developing communication programs for local government and publicly owned and managed water utilities.

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