Communication and the Narrative Basis of Sustainability: Observations from the Municipal Water Sector
2. Research Approach
3. Deconstructing Sustainability
4. Understanding the Narrative Basis of Sustainability
5. Sustainability as a Product of Deliberative Rationality
The most general feature of what one does when making an objective claim is giving a plausible story. One states one’s beliefs (or those most likely to be challenged) and the reasons for the beliefs, making the case for their viability by persuading an audience of the merits of the claim and subjecting the beliefs to criticism. What is persuasive or warranted varies according to the subject matter. In one case prediction may be the persuasive factor. In another, it may be the perspicacious analysis of a text. In both cases, what makes it objective is that it can be criticized, tested, or challenged in some form. The inquirer makes a case to which the community of inquirers can respond.
- Strive for broad-based deliberation; assure that parties to deliberations represent a wide spectrum of perspective, value orientation, interests, and knowledge of the situation.
- Strive to base the deliberations on available scientific data and information.
- Strive to make participants value positions known and explicit.
- Strive to assure that the deliberative process is transparent.
- Adopt rules or procedures for deliberative closure and reconsideration.
6. Establishment of an Ongoing Communication Infrastructure to Support Organizational Transformation and Deliberation
|Raising awareness||Raising awareness of sustainability issues, benefits, policies, and programs|
|Increasing understanding||Developing a more in-depth understanding of sustainability-related issues, policies, and programs, including grasping the benefits of sustainable actions and the risks of not adopting sustainable approaches|
|Changing attitudes||Addressing value orientations or dispositions that may block or impede genuine consideration of sustainable alternatives to the status quo|
|Facilitating dialogue||Engaging in ongoing deliberation about water sustainability in order to learn by doing, adapt to unforeseen contingencies, and perpetuate efforts to achieve sustainable operations|
- Focus groups with internal teams and departments to communicate the utility’s goals, enable expression of concerns, and ensure that everyone was part of the transformational conversation. The ultimate goal was for all employees to see themselves as “ambassadors” for their programs.
- Use of internal newsletters, videos, and social media to provide a predictable, ongoing means of communication among and between utility employees.
- Recruitment and cultivation of “passionistas” among office staff who were enthusiastic about green infrastructure and tenacious in working for its implementation.
- A website that provides interactive tools for consumers. For example, a “CSOcast” alerts the public to possible overflows from Philadelphia’s combined sewer system outfalls. The Philly RiverCast provides a daily forecast of Schuylkill River water quality to tell residents when it’s safe for recreational activities involving contact with the water. The website also provides videos showing green infrastructure projects and a map of all projects.
- Demonstration programs (e.g., permeable pavement, green roof) to show the feasibility and benefits of these actions and gain support both within and outside the PWD.
- Targeted education to schools, recreation centers, and other stakeholders. PWD conducts sessions when a green infrastructure project, such as a green street, is being built near a school or center in order to explain and demonstrate the project.
- Staff participation in a utility-wide “steering committee” that discusses alternative courses of action, considers investments, reviews policies, and authorizes program activities.
- Conducting sustainability training for all new employees. This training includes playing a DVD where utility employees discuss their sustainability activities.
- Requiring sustainability actions in each employee’s job description. Since employee pay raises are merit-based, this helps to make sustainability a central topic of staff focus and provides an incentive to act in a sustainable manner.
- Engaging employees in face-to-face conversations about sustainability. For example, during staff meetings, the utility invites employees from different offices to talk about the sustainability aspects of their work.
- Consumer research to evaluate changes in water conservation attitudes. Findings are used to refine outreach strategies.
- Creation of a WaterWise Partnership that recognizes local businesses for their water conservation efforts, and a “3C Challenge” that offers recognition to customers who calculate their water usage, commit to change, and conserve water.
- Installation of “watering stations” in utility facilities that provide reclaimed water for employees to use to water their plants. Labeled with the phrase “Give your plants a treat—it contains nutrients plants love,” the watering stations were installed to demonstrate to employees that what they perceived to be “dirty” water looks clean and has valuable uses.
- The programs being orchestrated by these three utilities begin from different visions and utilize a variety of strategies and tools, yet all are designed to build upon a communicative foundation by means of which internal and external stakeholders can learn, question, and develop an active understanding of what it means to live with and operate a sustainable water system. Importantly, these communication campaigns are not merely instructive and/or directive, but include means to encourage exploration of the topic, enable give-and-take between utility actors and stakeholders, and support ongoing reevaluation of goals and approaches. In all cases, these tool sets appear to be constructed with the understanding that they are part of an ongoing transformational process, not as a one-time mechanism for the broadcast of information.
7. The Upshot, Some Limitations, and Research Needs
- Diverse nature of sustainability: As described earlier, the sustainability programs undertaken by different water utilities vary considerably. For example, some utilities focus their sustainable operations on practices that involve energy and water conservation within their facilities (e.g., recycling, energy efficiency, green fleets, and green buildings), while other utilities define sustainability as encompassing green infrastructure, land use controls, water reclamation, watershed management, decentralized water systems, and/or other approaches that enhance the community’s water sustainability.
- Ideological foils: Sustainability programs often face ideological opposition, especially if associated with value-laden and divisive issues such as climate change, limitations on land use or development, or advocacy for governmental restriction.
- Technical nature of the topic: Water system sustainability is a complex, multi-disciplinary technical issue. It will likely involve technologies, concepts, and analytical methods that are unfamiliar to staff, customers, political leaders, and other stakeholders. These technologies and/or changes in operational practices are in a state of developmental flux.
- Material impacts on all utility operations: A comprehensive program of sustainability can affect nearly all utility operations, including procurement, engineering, maintenance, and facilities departments in addition to water and wastewater treatment.
- Need for sustainability to be integrated across local governments—not just the utility: The pragmatic context for implementing water sustainability is not just that of drinking water, wastewater, or stormwater utilities, but may also impact other functions of city and even state government. Sustainability programs need to cut across governmental silos, and leading cities are integrating sustainability initiatives across water, energy, transportation, parks and recreation, public works, and other departments. This means that deliberations cannot merely adopt established organizational protocols, but must be subject to ongoing negotiation and accommodation of differing operational viewpoints.
- Broad-based impact on customers and rate payers: A meaningful program of sustainability could affect all utility customers, possibly resulting in rate increases, mandatory conservation measures, recycling requirements, and land-use restrictions. Sustainability programs have also provided benefits such as enhanced open space, green jobs, public parks, and streetscapes.
Conflicts of Interest
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Herrick, C.N.; Pratt, J.L. Communication and the Narrative Basis of Sustainability: Observations from the Municipal Water Sector. Sustainability 2013, 5, 4428-4443. https://doi.org/10.3390/su5104428
Herrick CN, Pratt JL. Communication and the Narrative Basis of Sustainability: Observations from the Municipal Water Sector. Sustainability. 2013; 5(10):4428-4443. https://doi.org/10.3390/su5104428Chicago/Turabian Style
Herrick, Charles N., and Joanna L. Pratt. 2013. "Communication and the Narrative Basis of Sustainability: Observations from the Municipal Water Sector" Sustainability 5, no. 10: 4428-4443. https://doi.org/10.3390/su5104428