Today’s guest blog post is from George Hawkins, former General Manager of DC Water and President of Moonshot Missions. In partnership with the Water Center, we provide mayors and utility leaders with the tools they need to make necessary water system improvements while keeping water affordable for their most vulnerable residents. Learn more about our water affordability program here, including our upcoming Water Affordability Academy, technical assistance for member cities, and more.
In many ways, the pandemic has highlighted the benefits of digital services–technologies that gather and analyze information to enable better services–for municipal governments.
Cities and their residents benefit from technologies that allow for virtual monitoring and automated operation of equipment, safe deployment of personnel, pro-active identification of problems as well as optimal use of energy and other resources.
Why then do most of us at times feel a sense of dread about digital services? The answer comes in part from an old hand drier in the bathroom of a recreation center in Washington, DC. During a tour of new facilities, we stumbled upon a technician removing the new energy efficient hand dryer, replacing it with an older model. Why, we asked?
“Because I know how to fix the old ones,” he replied.
I learned a lesson that day. Digital services are complicated new systems that need to be integrated into legacy operations and run by people familiar with past practices. That sounds hard.
But worth the effort. Replacing outdated water infrastructure with digital options can help serve people and save them money – I have seen 25-75% savings from baseline. Whoa, that is an opportunity for any mayor.
Consider water services: Water meters enable customers to monitor their use and reduce bills and conserve water. Flow meters identify sewer clogs before they happen and can help shift stormwater flow to reduce flooding. Smart pumps can unclog themselves and moderate pump rates to save electricity. Smart balls that assess pipes from the inside can direct scarce capital to areas of greatest need.
Except, at times, digital does not work – usually because of the hand-dryer problem, heightened by compatibility challenges. On one hand, key personnel do not know how to use new programs, and on the other, these new programs do not work with what we already have. Sometimes, the new digital service seems to be worse than what came before. Here is my advice on how to achieve the benefits, while avoiding the pitfalls, of digital services.
1. Start with a problem statement.
Do not get sold on the latest “shiny object.” Instead, focus on the major cost centers and problems that need to be solved. You and your team should have a good sense of what challenges digital can help resolve before you start evaluating options.
2. Seek collaborators.
Digital services, or any new technologies, fail when off-the-shelf products are purchased without preparation on how the product is adapted to a given situation. Seek a vendor who will work collaboratively with your team – learning about your organization and people to customize a strategy.
3. Require integration.
Ensure vendors explain how their services integrate not only with other new digital services, but with existing systems. Some of the valuable benefits from digital services come from the aggregation of information across systems, new and old.
4. Involve staff.
New technology also fails when staff feel a new approach has been imposed on them. Engage staff champions from the onset – to help identify the problem, collaborate with the vendor, and develop an implementation plan. Success is directly proportional to the degree to which your team considers this “their project”.
5. Include training.
Do not allow a vendor to sell a new technology without including a training budget. Plan out training before, during and after installation. New technology without adequate training is worse than doing nothing.
6. Celebrate staff.
When positive results start flowing, highlight the staff members who are achieving these improvements. Too often, the technology is highlighted, and staff feels slighted. Build a staff-first culture and your team will compete to lead the next success.
7. Pilots and cyber security are musts.
Every digital step is worth a pilot discovery project and must be designed with a plan to reduce cyber risks.
Following this handful of simple strategies will enable mayors and their personnel to embrace digital technologies that benefit their constituents and save their money, too.
George Hawkins is the President of Moonshot Missions and welcomes inquiries from Mayors and their staff on how to improve their water services. He is the past General Manager of DC Water, which he helped transform into an innovative, world-class utility that adopted new technologies to improve every aspect of their operations and finances. Visit www.moonshotmissions.org to learn more or reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is active on twitter @georgehawkinsdc and on Linkedin.