Powering Strong Communities

Community Decisions: How Public Power Meaningfully Engages Local Stakeholders

Local decision-making is a tenet of the public power model. In a rapidly changing environment, from major shifts in the power supply to consumer habits and expectations, how public power utilities engage stakeholders is requiring new approaches and ideas.

Both internal and external stakeholders have sought to influence change. External activists have demanded substantial change in how utilities operate and to be meaningfully involved in decision-making. Employees have asked for additional flexibility and benefit changes since the pandemic began. Even before the pandemic, public power utilities were especially aware of the need to ensure rate affordability to avoid over-burdening customers who can least afford higher bills. How utilities can best dedicate limited resources to ensuring that stakeholders are heard, and feedback considered, is evolving.

A Changing Landscape

How public power utility stakeholders get information about your utility’s initiatives has likely changed significantly in the past two decades. In 2005, most likely, your stakeholders received information directly from you via mailings, your website, maybe an email, or at a local meeting. Perhaps from friends or family.

Now information (correct or not) spreads more quickly and in a more complex manner than ever before. According to the Pew Research Center, only 5% of the adult population used social media platforms in 2005. For the last five years, it has remained steady at around 70%. Social media is now one of the easiest ways to draw attention to news and to political, social, or environmental issues – any of which can affect a utility.

The landscape of interested stakeholders has evolved too. Customer and stakeholder interest groups have become more abundant – environmentalists, social justice advocates, electric vehicle enthusiasts, residents with low to moderate income, small or large commercial businesses, and vendors – with each having differing interests and capabilities of keeping up with and staying engaged on utility initiatives.

Group Primary areas of interest with the utility
Policymakers Safe and reliable utility operations, affordable rates, equitable distribution of resources, financial and physical/cyber security of the utility
Ratepayer advocates To help the average consumer have an informed voice in rates and policies
Employees Having defining roles in utility strategies, outcomes, and successes
Low-income households Reducing energy burden, help paying bills, options for budget billing, limited means of engagement
Businesses Affordable rates and programs to remain competitive, reliable power supply, rebates and incentives for efficiency and behind the meter assets
Environmentalists Transition to a clean energy economy to mitigate effects of climate change, protection of local ecosystems
Social justice advocates Addressing disproportionate climate effects, including public health, equitable access to resources, services, opportunities
Electric vehicle enthusiasts Rate incentives, rebates, charging availability
Vendors Fair access to utility contracts, including businesses owned by women, minorities, and veterans

While utilities may be most familiar with neighborhood groups or established environmental interests, the past few years have seen increased activity (and growing influence) from grassroot advocates and influential business leaders on “corporate social responsibility” initiatives. Harvard’s Business Insights blog estimated that 90% of companies on the S&P 500 index published a corporate social responsibility report in 2019. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that the majority of U.S. adults believe that social media is very or somewhat important in getting elected officials to pay attention to issues (69%), for creating sustained movements for social change (67%), and for influencing policy decisions (58%). This activity only intensified during the pandemic as social justice movements and scenes from climate change-driven natural disasters unfolded on television screens and across social media as the public itself was forced to stay home and embrace virtual accommodations.

Local, state, and federal policymakers have noticed too.

On top of the public power business model, which values community input, and local city charters which require utilities to involve the community, some public power utilities are also starting to see policy changes that require a new level of engagement. Specifically, the states of California, New York, and Washington recently implemented laws requiring utilities to work with or examine effects to certain communities.

California requires state regulatory agencies to work to improve air quality and economic conditions in disadvantaged communities that suffer from economic, health, and environmental burdens. A stakeholder-led advisory group advises regulators on how energy programs impact these communities and what more could be done for residents. The state became the first to require local governments to incorporate environmental justice elements into general plans.

New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act established regional clean energy hubs to improve community engagement and ensure that all New Yorkers can benefit from the state's clean energy transition.

Earlier this year, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the Healthy Environment for All Act into law, which requires state agencies to consider environmental justice principles in strategic planning, budgeting, and when making funding decisions.

These evolving trends mean public power utilities must do more to meaningfully engage stakeholders.

Building Trust

Starkville is a community of 24,000 people in central Mississippi with a core but shrinking retiree population, and is home to the state’s largest college, Mississippi State University, with 23,000 enrollees. Starkville Utilities serves 14,000 customers, with roughly 15-20% customers who are fixed income, single- and working-class families.

Starkville’s 70 employees recognized that while much effort had focused on meeting the utility’s technical and financial goals, less had been done to engage with customers and other stakeholders. “We were using excuses for why it wasn’t happening,” said Terry Kemp, the general manager of Starkville.

Utility employees also saw information shared on social media that caused pause – and reflection on the utility’s practices. These recognitions led to a renewed department-wide effort to engage and listen to stakeholders – and be quick to respond to feedback.

Kemp believes that meaningful engagement “is something you must purposely pursue and keep continuous two-way communication to build relationships.”

Starkville assessed customer demographics, with a focus on ensuring no one is left behind. Starkville then undertook several engagement initiatives, like producing newsletters and using other communication platforms. It began with an initial customer survey. The plan is to measure and benchmark progress, basing decisions on facts and numbers rather than emotions, from future surveys.

“One of the bigger surprises that came from this was how little stakeholders knew about what we do. But we saw a real eagerness to better understand our industry and, once we made those relationships, they became some of our best advocates,” Kemp said.

It took a considerable time to build that trust and confidence in the utility’s abilities. Now it’s something they want to protect.

Starkville works through service agencies to help low-income customers and offers money-saving energy programs. Utility employees have ongoing conversations with “key account partners” about their future, their expectations, and how they would grade Starkville’s service. This information is then assessed for opportunities to make further improvements, or to tailor programs and services to support specific needs.

Outreach extends to local decision makers as well. Kemp has biweekly meetings with the mayor on project updates and technical needs. He also takes new board members to tour facilities as early as possible to discuss customer expectations, future capital plans, and utility finances. Kemp continually looks for opportunities to involve local leaders in community events “to help them understand that we're all in this boat together.” Kemp emphasizes that the utility is not in the business to make money, but rather to provide an essential service and live within its means.

Making Connections

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District is constantly seeking stakeholder feedback from its advisory council to business customers – and putting it to work.

Jose Bodipo-Memba, SMUD’s director of sustainable community programs, said the utility holds quarterly seminars with partners to discuss information and solicit input on what is working and what partners would like to see. Community partners have an assigned lead at SMUD. The public power utility also conducts surveys to gather a broad range of information and leverages virtual spaces for listening sessions and forums for community members and partners. In addition, SMUD’s community events allow the utility to hear directly on topics of importance to stakeholders.

“These forums help inform SMUD’s programs and processes. Our 800-plus partners have deep neighborhood connections and help steer and build a vision that’s more equitable for everyone,” said Bodipo-Memba.

Rhonda Staley-Brooks, the utility’s manager of community development outreach and education, added that SMUD’s targeted listening sessions include forums on environmental justice, social justice, and youth issues. “These learning opportunities are invaluable to inform decision-making at all levels of our organization. There’s a lot of information-gathering we use to ensure equity,” she said.

As an example of how SMUD aims to better understand community needs and the impacts of the utility’s decisions, Staley-Brooks pointed to SMUD’s Sustainable Communities Resource Priority Map. The interactive map indicates underserved or distressed areas by lack of community development, income, housing, employment opportunities, transportation, medical treatment, nutrition, education and a clean environment. For SMUD, the online tool shows how the utility’s services and programs impact different population segments, and where resources may be lacking.

The tool is designed not just for SMUD, but for all regional leaders and organizations to help make a difference.

“SMUD uses data and feedback to fully measure the effectiveness of what we aim to do,” she added.

“When we talk about being a powerful inclusive partner, particularly for our Zero Carbon reduction goals, our focus is on realizing outcomes that benefit all members of the community,” said Bodipo-Memba. This means leveraging energy solutions so everyone can participate in regional efforts from an environmental to an energy safety standpoint, and everything in between. “Our job is to make sure that everyone can be part of a larger solution to make our community better,” he added.

SMUD recently created a new position for a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. SMUD sees this role as being integral to continuing to build relationships with utility partners and the broader community. Dr. Markisha Webster started the position in November 2021. 

Encouraging Change from Within

SMUD understands that it cannot reach its goals without a diverse workforce that reflects the community it serves. The utility is in the process of hiring a director-level position focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion across the organization. Laurie Rodriguez, the utility’s director of people services and strategies, said “A diverse workforce, inclusive culture, and deep community connections are defining features of what SMUD is setting out to do as it enters a new phase of operations that looks toward a brighter, carbon-free future.”

Employees are already working to influence progress. Last year, SMUD’s Women’s Employee Resource Group worked to address barriers for women in three key areas: advocacy, culture, and personal and professional development. It resulted in SMUD signing the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls’ Equal Pay Pledge in late 2020, committing to: conducting an annual gender pay analysis; reviewing hiring and promotion procedures; and supporting best practices to close the pay gap. “This pledge was an extension of pay equality efforts SMUD began in 2017 to take a close look at job classes and issues tied to gender while ensuring equity in SMUD pay,” Rodriguez said.

SMUD’s Parents Employee Resource Group offered rich information and recommendations related to maternity disability leave and paid family leave policies. “They presented employee testimonials, proposed updates to the Employee Benefits Handbooks for broader understanding and application, and compiled research on comparative benefits offerings and related costs,” Rodriguez noted. SMUD has since implemented the Employee Benefits Handbooks language recommendations and is continuing to conduct market research and evaluate options for the next iteration of SMUD’s Total Rewards strategy.

In Starkville, utility employees have significantly expanded outreach to schools and colleges. Kemp is working closely with the university to foster long-term relationships, so students will want to return to the community.

“From a career standpoint, we want them to feel like we recognize their importance and give them an idea of what they could be involved with,” Kemp said. Now the effort is both to get students excited about how technology is changing the utility industry and show them career opportunities.

Tips for Meaningful Engagement

There are numerous ways public power utilities can work toward meaningful stakeholder engagement. It requires much more than simply holding a public meeting or collecting public comment. Rather, it is a process that is ultimately intended to result in better decision-making and community outcomes.

  • Be mindful of how and when meetings are held.
    • Avoid scheduling midday meetings
    • Don’t rely solely on listservs to share when meetings will be held
    • Work through trusted community groups
  • Give stakeholders the opportunity to be heard and to influence decisions that affect their lives or businesses
    • Provide information to help stakeholders better understand the issues, options, and solutions
    • Offer staff support to help understand technical information
    • Collaborate with stakeholders to develop decision criteria and alternatives to identify the preferred solution
  • Be clear and upfront about what stakeholders can – and cannot – influence. It is rarely useful to simply ask stakeholders, “What do you want?” Such broad questions can raise expectations and direct input to areas where their influence is not actually possible.
  • Give special consideration and attention to vulnerable populations and marginalized communities
    • Leverage data to determine customer energy burden and the subset(s) most in need of support
    • Set energy burden reduction goals and timelines
    • Address challenges with design, implementation, and management of programs for customers with low incomes or other groups
    • Develop new programs to reduce the gap between the support currently provided and the support needed
    • Don’t provide information only in English for communities where it may not be their first language