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Since March 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been shutting off water to Detroit residents unable to pay their outstanding water bills. Residents were shocked, the public outcry was dramatic, and the City has been trying to fix the situation ever since.

As the city reached its summer heat peaks in July and August, some 16,000 residents were reported to have had their water supply interrupted. With close to US$90m owing to the Department, and a poverty rate heading towards 40%, the situation is worsened by the City’s poor property ownership records and lack of priority given to communication.

But how did it get to this point?

In the past, overdue water bills were largely ignored by residents – either because they were already struggling to make ends meet, or becaubildese they could. There had been no direct consequences for failing to pay, other than an increasing amount in red at the bottom of people’s bills.

Then an emergency manager was appointed to the potentially bankrupt Detroit City and some tough choices had to be made.  Final notices were sent out in March. More than 46,000 shut off notices were sent out to active but overdue accounts in May. City agents used bright blue paint to mark water mains which were to be or already had been shut off – a modern-day “scarlet letter” indicating the resident’s financial plight.

For many residents, the blue paint was the first real indication their water would actually be shut off. No major statements made on their bill – just the usual line in red. No door hangers giving a notice of impending shutoff. No telephone call or door knock as a last resort to ensure the resident knew of their situation and what options were available.

The public outcry was intense and resulted in celebrities adding their voice to July protests, and charities being established across the US to help residents make ends meet and put pressure on the DWSD to turn the water back on.

In early August DWSD started to pay more attention to its communications – employing more customer service staff and posting notices on doors among other measures but it was too little, too late.

Apart from the City’s motives and the question of whether access to water in your home is a right or a privilege, the communications from the DWSD clearly didn’t hit the mark.  The Department did increase its efforts to get in touch with delinquent payers, but with the United Nations wei
ghing in 
for ‘water as a basic human right’, and reports of the City’s impending water service privatisation, the Department is now both under siege and under paid – potentially a victim of project planning without understanding the problem, and the audience, first.

While there are undoubtedly many residents legitimately unable to pay their bills, help is also readily available to them. They are not the issue.

Over time, the City helped create this strong culture of ‘my right but not my responsibility’ for water payments. When it came to paying bills, how did it misunderstand its audience, and their communication needs, so starkly? Cable TV companies’ bills are paid. The City’s electricity board is not overrun with unpaid accounts. People are evicted if they don’t pay their rent. And yet DWSD bills are ignored.

Would further audience segmentation, updating records, and priority given to chasing the large bill holders and business premises with outstanding accounts first have helped? Campaigns to help people understand their bill, the importance of water, and how to save it, would develop conversations about ‘water rights’. Regular, clear communications about overdue bills and water shut offs could then commence – and not just an additional line in red on the account.

Over and above the government mismanagement or socio-economic bias issues, the lack of ability to review the causal links between bill payment and right to water and address these specific to the target audiences has created further problems that require clever, and considerate, solutions.

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