The Phoenix Approach to Public Water Utility Challenges

By Gritzuk, Michael | Public Management, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Phoenix Approach to Public Water Utility Challenges


Gritzuk, Michael, Public Management


The challenges facing Phoenix, Arizona, and many other public water utilities of all sizes in this early part of the 21st century are plentiful. Customer service issues, new environmental regulations, cost cutting, and maintaining low rates are common concerns for public water utilities. But at the city of Phoenix Water Services Department (WSD), the philosophy for facing these challenges is a progressive, sure-footed strategy.

Phoenix WSD is continuously achieving more cost-effective operations and always looking for ways to be more responsive to customers' needs. It has developed programs that help maintain environmental excellence, and with an eye to the tragic events of 9/11, it has made a significant priority of focusing on security to protect the water infrastructure and its customers.

CHALLENGES

Our department's challenges in facing the problems of this century began near the end of the 20th century, before we really knew just how difficult the future would be. First, in 1997, the department embarked upon a reengineering program with the chief goals of enhancing customer service, operations, and water quality while saving costs wherever possible. Basically, it would be a program to achieve best-in-class operations in all the functions performed.

To meet these high objectives, the department first forged a partnership between management and labor and formed a committee, made up of equal numbers of members from each constituency, that would oversee the entire process. Then, the department hired consultants to assist the staff of the water production and wastewater treatment divisions--the two in which national competition and change in operational and management philosophy are most transforming the industry.

The consultants directed staff to formulate suggestions that would change the way WSD does business. Prior to reengineering, as is typical in the water industry, maintenance and operations staffs had been separate in classification and duties, and there had been little cross-training.

Water administration staff, in partnership with labor, then directed the process of setting up a new classification that would not only combine the duties of these classifications but also enable a new career and incentive program and a new way of compensating these employees. Instead of the traditional method, it was decided to use a multiskilled performance program and pay plan.

The multiskilled plan, made up of nine basic skill blocks--three levels of three skills per level--must be navigated by the employee who holds the classification of operations and maintenance technician (O & M tech) in order to receive higher levels of compensation.

All new employees must acquire at least one operation and one maintenance skill block within the first 12 months of employment. This ensures that new employees are given a broad band of skills, so they can become useful more quickly than in the old mode of training, which was in a single discipline and only occurred when time allowed.

Once beyond these first 12 months, the career path in this job classification becomes self-directed. The department and the city rewards employees for expanding their skills and certification and becoming more valuable to the operation.

This multiskilled program is currently unique to Phoenix, and after several years of implementation, it is proving to be what it was designed to be: an enabler that will alter the culture of the workforce, raise efficiency, and cut costs in the department's chief operational divisions.

The much more efficient multiskilled program allows the department to reduce the staffing at each facility, which has been achieved through attrition, not layoffs. The amount of supervision has been reduced too, also through attrition. For work management, technology in the form of a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) has been implemented as an enabler to change the structure of how work is prioritized, delegated, and accounted for.

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