Talking Utility Management with PNCWA's Newest Committee

PNCWA is excited to announce our newest committee—the Utility Management Committee. While some think that utility management is similar to asset management, its range is much broader and encompasses finances, staffing, leadership, resiliency, data, customer service, communications, IT, sustainability, strategic planning, and more. The committee is dedicated to promoting and enhancing the use of best practices in utility management to efficiently protect human health and the environment. Per their official charter, they work to disseminate best practices in utility management internally to members and externally to stakeholders with an emphasis on fostering PNCWA’s vision of clean, sustainable watersheds for future generations. 

David Gordon, the chair of the UMC, is passionate about utility management. Gordon, who works at FCS Group in Seattle, spent some time talking to us about the new committee, why utility management is so important, their first workshop in October, and how PNCWA members can get involved. 

Why was there a need for a Utility Management Committee? 

I think there's a few reasons. First—and, in my biased opinion, foremost—utility management is an integral part of our industry. It's becoming more important as we look at increasing requirements for our services in conjunction with aging infrastructure and potential decreases in federal funding. We're facing more requirements, both because our infrastructure is getting older and the needs of our services are getting higher.

There's more items we have to prepare for—like climate change. So there's a financial burden there, but at the same time, our access to funding isn't necessarily getting better because of what the federal government currently funds as well as what our communities can afford. Affordability is a really big issue for a lot of communities—even wealthy cities like Portland and Seattle have huge issues of affordability. So when you take those issues into context, utility management is a tool that becomes very important.

A second issue is that there are a lot of people who now work in utility management. We want the membership of PNCWA to reflect that, which just means that we need to show that utility management is an important part of PNCWA and that there is a venue for people who have interest in this field.

Lastly, I think that historically, the Pacific Northwest has been a leader in this field. Having a Utility Management Committee is an opportunity to continue to show that leadership, foster best practices, and encourage industry growth here at home. We’re seen as leaders in asset management and have been willing to experiment and push the boundaries on the services we provide to our citizens. And so that's unique for us, and that should continue. Having a committee to help foster those best practices and encourage the sharing of information—it flows naturally from there. 

What would you say is the difference between utility management and asset management?

Asset management often focuses on maintaining our assets towards the lowest lifecycle cost while managing and mitigating risk. Utility management, however, is an overall approach to meeting the strategic goals of a utility by aligning people, processes, and technology towards a common vision. So asset management is one tool used for effective utility management. 

You recently held your first committee meeting, how did it go?

Well it's at pretty high-level at the moment: an introduction, what we will be doing as a committee, expectations of what it means to be a committee member. We also went through our goals. What we want to accomplish is in line with PNCWA's strategic plan: making information more accessible, communicating with sister organizations, maintaining healthy membership, promoting cutting-edge technology, and sharing best practices.

We reviewed those goals, discussed what we initially want to accomplish, then came up with a list of activities that we want to do this year, in three years, and in five years that will align with our goals. Coming up with those activities is kind of a natural first step.

The committee’s first activity is a pre-conference workshop before the annual PNCWA conference. What will that be like?

The pre-conference workshop is, conveniently enough, on effective utility management [laughs]. It’s in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who recently updated their guidelines for effective utility management; they call it their “Effective Utility Management Primer.” It’s a program that you can go through to help ensure that you're effectively managing utilities.

How the program works is that they have the 10 attributes—including product quality, customer satisfaction, financial viability, resiliency, community, and sustainability—and there are activities based on these attributes.

You assess yourself on these different attributes; for example, are you effective at how you manage product quality? You look at where you want to be and where you currently are, then based on that gap, you assess what you need to do in order to be effective in that component of effective utility management.

One or more EPA representatives, as well as some other folks that have put all this together, will be providing an all-day workshop on how to effectively implement their guidelines. So showing managers, who would be implementing the program, how to go through the process and see how they can do it at their organization.

Why should people get involved and be excited about utility management?

I'm exceedingly biased in my viewpoint here [laughs]. But my belief is that whether we know it or not, everyone in our industry does some level of utility management. Understanding our role in that management process—and how important it is to meeting our customer needs and meeting our future challenges—is vital for our generation and it's how we meet the challenges we're going to be facing.

I fundamentally believe that the issues we had to tackle—and have successfully tackled—at the onset of our industry are different than the issues we face today. We can't use the same tools, the same bucket of solutions, that we used back then for these different problems. So now we have to be creative: We have to look at management. We have to look at prioritization. Having those tools and understanding is going to be vital moving forward.

If you're excited about the topic and it’s something that interests you, I encourage you to reach out to me, or really any of the other committee members, in order to get involved. The only real criterion to joining the committee is that you are a PNCWA member.

What is something in your field and/or utility management that you're really excited and passionate about right now?

I'd say what excites me the most is drive amongst utilities to take the data they've been collecting and turn it into information they can use to make better decisions. So many of us have become very good at collecting a lot of information. We haven't all become really good at making better decisions because of that information we're collecting.

But more and more, people are recognizing that that's extremely important: figuring out strategies of using information, incorporating those strategies to improve decision-making, and implementing better processes (and ultimately better services) for customers.

For example, collecting data on why a pipe breaks. Maybe every time a pipe breaks, you collect a piece of data and it says it's because of roots got in the pipe, or maybe it was because it was installed improperly, or maybe it was because someone dumped a bunch of trash down a sewer manhole and broke the pipe—which has happened. So you collect all that information, but what do you do with all that information?

Utilities that are progressive in their management and progressive in their data analysis will analyze that data and compare that to how to make decisions on what inspection technology to invest in, how and what pipes they should be replacing, how often they need to maintain those assets. So they'll compare that information to what they are currently doing and update their systems based on that information, record that feedback if something is improving, and ultimately all offer better services. I find that very exciting.


Visit the Utility Management Committee homepage here, where you can read their charter, meet the team, and learn more about their upcoming workshop.

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