Including residents in a conversation about the future of water
Hunter Water provides water and wastewater services to over half a million people across Australia’s Greater Newcastle region.
Community engagement is a critical component of Hunter Water’s ongoing water security planning process, which will set out how the Hunter Valley will manage water for the next 30 years. Hunter Water used Ethelo along with a robust in-person engagement process to include people in an online discussion that revealed the community’s collective priorities. Ethelo data gave the Hunter Water team confidence that they have a solid understanding of resident perspectives, which will help them make a better plan that the community can wholeheartedly support.
Outcome Support Score
Community Engagement Coordinator
As the climate continues to change, water security is an issue that’s front of mind for governments everywhere. It’s a big topic in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, Australia—where water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. Hunter Water, the community’s state-owned water provider, has been working on a plan to ensure the region has sufficient water supplies for a sustainable future.
Community engagement has been a big part of creating that plan. Over the past three years, Hunter Water’s Community Engagement Coordinator Clare Hogue and her team have used various methods to consult with residents, including online surveys, forums, drop-in sessions and a community liaison group.
“It’s about how water is going to be supplied to our community in the future, and it’s important that people understand the various benefits and costs associated with each of the options we were considering,” Hogue explains.
She adds that polarization amongst residents has been a big challenge during the consultations, as it is for many communities.
After the COVID 19 pandemic struck in early 2020, in-person engagement became a challenge, and online surveys weren’t cutting it. So Hogue went looking for a way to engage and educate people online that also helped reduce polarization. She found Ethelo.
“Ethelo is much more dynamic visually and allows much more complexity in how we’re approaching the community and getting their feedback than a straight online survey with Likert scale responses,” Hogue notes.
Getting a clear picture of community views
The Hunter Water team used Ethelo to get feedback from residents on seven preliminary portfolio options they had developed based on their previous engagement efforts.
The question they asked was: What kind of water security plan would you like to see for the Lower Hunter?
“We asked people for their preferences about water security packages and relative bill impacts, combined with what they supported across the seven portfolios,” Hogue says.
“Ethelo helped people trade-off levels of investment as well as program and project objectives. So they understood how choosing one option over another impacted the program more widely. It gives a clear picture, and we could have more certainty that the information we were getting was a true reflection of their views because they were really well informed.”
She adds that Ethelo was one part of a mixed-method approach her team used. The trends found in the Ethelo data were similar to outcomes from the previous work, giving her team confidence that they fully understood the community’s views.
“You can have more information in Ethelo than in any other program I’ve seen. So you can feel your respondents are well informed when they participate,” she adds.
Hogue notes that the Ethelo team went the extra mile to set up the engagement and ensure everything ran smoothly.
“It was complex—we made lots of changes and had many different discussions about ways to approach it,” she says. “Everyone at Ethelo was really responsive and amenable.”
Building a better plan with lower cost
The Hunter Water team is using the data on community perspectives they got from Ethelo to inform their ongoing water security planning work.
Hogue says that the solid understanding of community priorities they got from Ethelo will ultimately help make a better plan that the community can wholeheartedly support.
“We can build and develop our plan with a good understanding of the community’s priorities,” she says. “It’ll only make the plan better, and when we have it finalized and put it out on public exhibition, we can say, ‘We really did listen, and this is how we’ve incorporated your views.’”
What’s more, Hogue says doing online engagement with Ethelo saved Hunter Water money compared to the in-person engagements this kind of consultation would otherwise have required.
“Ethelo offered a way to get a lot of detailed information out there and get feedback in an online environment, which was a lot less expensive than it would have been to do it face-to-face.”