Community Engagement

A community seat at the utility table

How public power involves customers in decision-making

Surveys have found that most utility customers spend about 10 minutes a year thinking about their utility, usually when they get the bill. For public power utilities, which are owned by the communities they serve, customers need to understand more than just where to pay the bill.

In this digital age, communication is easier than ever, with options running the gamut from old-fashioned direct mail campaigns to social media pages and tweets. What a utility puts out in terms of communication is only one side of the coin; how customer-owners engage with the utility, offer feedback, and become part of decision-making is the other.


Engage early, engage often

The Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington state uses a variety of techniques to reach out to members, including local government functions and local service organizations such as the Kiwanis and the Lions Club.

“Our commissioners are adamant,” said Suzanne Hartman, communications manager at Chelan PUD. “We engage early and often. It is the right thing to do, but also, it is costly if you don’t. It saves time and money in the long run.”

The PUD has a stakeholder engagement council comprising employees who interface with the public. The council meets every other month to discuss ongoing or upcoming projects, and it conducts one or two employee training sessions every year.

Chelan and Douglas counties have a coordinating council of local public information officers from a variety of agencies that gets together every other month to talk about strategies and share resources.

“In our area, most folks look to us and ask us for advice on engagement and outreach, and we are happy to provide help,” Hartman said.

The importance of community engagement was evident in the PUD’s process when it recently proposed siting for two new substations. It was apparent to PUD staff that the siting for one of the substations, on the north shore of Lake Chelan, would face pushback because the potential sites were in a community that prizes its lake views. The key, said Hartman, was to conduct an outreach program with the community and to start the process early.

To get community involvement and buy-in, Hartman said, the PUD actively recruited community members to sit on an advisory committee. Originally, the PUD started that process with a direct mail campaign, then it began reaching out directly to community members by simply working their networks.

“Some were people we knew, some had a profile in the community, and others were self-nominated,” Hartman said.

The PUD also recruited from local homeowners’ associations. In the end, there were advisory committees of 10 to 12 people for both proposed substation projects. The committees met at least monthly in meetings that could last for hours.

“We spent hours going through criteria for what was a good site,” Hartman said. The committees were even given a tour of an operating substation. “They were very involved through the whole process.”

The advisory committees helped the PUD identify specific locations for the substations.

“That’s why it is of value,” said Hartman. “When a community understands in more detail how a utility makes its decisions,” it is more comfortable with the outcome. Both substation projects have now moved beyond the site selection process and are in the design phase.

Separately, the Chelan PUD invited community members to participate in its strategic planning process. There was “incredible engagement” on that effort, said Hartman. The PUD conducted a direct mail campaign that garnered a 14 percent response rate.

Respondents were given the option to vote on 16 strategic options, from expanding the PUD’s fiber optic network to how to best use its parks. They could vote by mail or online, but there was a twist. To vote, participants were given 10 “coins” that they could allocate to the 16 strategic options, with no single project being worth more than four coins. The process forces people to weigh their options. “People love it,” and it helps them understand the resource allocation process, said Hartman.

For Hartman, one of the goals of engagement is to give members a sense of what is involved in the utility decision-making process. That can be quite a challenge in the modern world.

“It all starts at the top,” said Jamie Harris, principal of Jamie O. Harris Consulting and former chairman of the board at Interaction Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in techniques for fostering collaboration and has assisted entities such as Chelan.

There is the decision that needs to be made, and there is the decision-making process. “You have to think about both from the beginning,” Harris said. “People tend to support what they help to create. When you involve people in the decision-making process, you get a better decision and more support along the way.”

The key to getting buy-in, said Harris, is bringing people in. “We have found over and over again that it doesn’t make everyone a convert — and they might not like the final outcome — but if they are part of the conversation, if they understand the process, they are more likely to support the outcome.”


Meeting communities where they are

To connect with its community, the Kissimmee Utility Authority in Florida used to participate in local trade shows. At those events, KUA was just one booth next to many others. “It was difficult to engage the customers,” said Chris Gent, vice president of corporate communications at KUA. So, it quit the trade show circuit a couple of years ago and redirected those funds to community engagement, particularly its monthly movies in the park program.

The program draws between 2,000 and 4,000 people per month, and the utility uses the venue to advertise job openings, display public service announcements, and set up booths to educate customers on topics such as the differences between LED and CFL lights. “For the same amount of money as trade shows, we can engage more people,” said Gent. Promotion of the events is 100 percent driven by social media, he said.

Gent said KUA uses most social media channels, including Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Nextdoor, and Facebook, but Facebook “by far is the leader for us in customer engagement. Second is Twitter.”

In designing KUA’s community engagement programs, KUA draws on its involvement with the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce. One of the key lessons it has learned is about the diversity of the local business community. Eighty percent of the businesses in thechamber’s territory are small — mom-and-pop stores and tourism-related businesses — and their needs differ from those of large businesses.

Applying that knowledge at the utility, KUA last year created a key accounts person to handle large business accounts. For example, he said, KUA no longer looks at 7-Eleven convenience stores as individual, single stores, but as part of a larger entity. “We have reconfigured the way we do things, so we can be more responsive,” he said.

KUA is also working in partnership with the local water authority and other business interests to support the building of a new technology center that will test and design smart sensors in an effort Gent said will make the region a “mini Silicon Valley.” Gent says the effort will lead to economic growth and job creation in the region, and it opens up a direct connection between KUA and the new technology companies.

KUA is heavily involved in chamber activities and uses those connections when it embarks on a new project. When planning a new substation, for instance, the utility gave members of the business community a tour of a similar substation design in a neighboring utility’s service territory. “We showed them what and why we are doing it,” Gent said. “We have found that if people have an issue with a project, it is generally because they don’t understand it.”

Having an engaged community can also help when it comes to recruiting members for a representative citizen utility board. To recruit board members, KUA is required to post an ad in the local newspaper classified section, but Gent said the utility’s recruitment activities “go way above what is required.”

KUA uses social media, the customer bill – even video – to help recruit citizens interested in serving on the utlity’s five-member volunteer board.


Building buy-in from afar

The Nebraska Public Power District fosters community engagement in a variety of ways. One is by providing a live stream of its monthly board meetings to the public. That allows everyone across the state to watch them, said Jeanne Schieffer, corporate communications and public relations manager at NPPD.

To help get the word out, the utility uses social media to publicize the meeting when it begins. And once a year, NPPD holds one of its monthly board meetings at a location other than its Columbus headquarters as a way of encouraging more public participation.

With at least half of its revenue derived from wholesale power sales, NPPD reaches out to the entities to which it sells power and invites them to meet regularly with NPPD executives and management to discuss ongoing issues.

NPPD also meets regularly with community leaders in the 79 retail communities it serves. Schieffer said account managers and/or customer service representatives regularly attend community events and council meetings to make sure those communities know they have a conduit for raising questions or seeking additional information.

The Omaha Public Power District livestreams both its committee and board meetings so that they are convenient and available to customers across the utility’s territory. That practice comes from OPPD’s senior management and board of directors, which in 2015 developed a number of strategic directives to serve as guiding principles and help optimize decision-making.

One of those directives, Stakeholder Outreach and Engagement, specifically addresses OPPD’s commitment to engaging its customers, the community, and other stakeholders through outreach and engagement.

“Employees take great pride in being involved in those areas where they work and live,” said Lisa Olson, vice president of public affairs at OPPD. That participation helps us “keep a pulse on the needs of each diverse and unique community,” she said.

Olson said OPPD already works with a variety of organizations, from the United Way to Rotary clubs, and is developing a “community connections team” to help the utility learn more about its communities, identify partnerships, and proactively address any areas of concern for its customer-owners.