San Antonio’s Uplift Customer Assistance Program: Lessons in Public Engagement

Wednesday, March 1, 2023. – This event has already occurred.

View the recording

With our partners at the Water Center at Penn and US Water Alliance, we are shining a spotlight on local leaders advancing water affordability. Learn more about how we’re supporting city leaders. Are you a mayor new to this issue? Our water reports are a great place to start.

To kick off our new Water Wednesdays Community of Practice series, the Mayors Innovation Project welcomed Greg Wukash, External Affairs Manager of the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), to discuss his organization’s affordability efforts, including their Uplift Customer Assistance Program. 

Even utilities with robust customer assistance programs struggle with one main problem: how do they ensure those who need the help are signing up? This challenge spurred Greg and the SAWS team to create the Uplift Customer Assistance Program, designed to embrace a “neighbor-centric” approach by offering a more holistic method of assistance. 

This holistic approach was put into practice with the idea that the Uplift program is about people. Gavino Ramos, SAWS Senior Vice President for Communications and External Affairs said it best, “We can never forget that these aren’t just numbers. Each number represents a real family in need.” However, this sentiment is only useful if the people in charge of administering the program share this belief. This is why SAWS made it a priority to build an Affordability Team dedicated to serving the communities they live in. The team has grown from just two members in 2015 to ten in 2023, and is made up of staff representative of the people they serve. 

In addition to SAWS building the best team for the work, the organization also decided to forgo a traditional call center and instead have staff proactively engage the community where they are. This involved moving outreach efforts from customer service to external affairs, using direct community engagement and events to register people on the spot. This combination of dedicated staff and proactive outreach has led to an 89 percent increase in assistance program enrollment between 2015 and 2022.

This people-first approach also led SAWS to implement a simplified, one-stop shop application featuring automatic enrollment for those over 60 and instant access to 14 programs for eligible customers without the hassle of having to apply for each individually. Programs include:

    • Project Agua, an initiative that provides twice-yearly payment assistance to qualifying residential SAWS customers.
    • Plumbers to People, which provides plumbing repairs for qualified customers to maintain an affordable water bill.
    • Laterals to People, a program that helps qualified customers repair a health or safety problem with their sewer lateral system.

Even with this success, SAWS isn’t getting complacent. In 2023, the organization is set to replace their current Affordability Discount Program (ADP) with a separate rate structure for those who qualify with no monthly charges for the first 2,000 gallons of water used. All current ADP customers will be automatically enrolled in the new program – another best practice for utilities looking to advance this work.

To learn more about the Uplift program, you can view a recording of Greg’s presentation. And be sure to join us for our upcoming Community of Practice events on March 29 and May 3, 2023!