Tyrone Jue, Communications Manager, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
Critical need often drives massive infrastructure projects. But too frequently projects are waylaid once the public hears of the cost. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission realized, early in the process, that communication was key to gaining public support for capital improvement programs and set out to change systematically the way it viewed and communicated with the public. The following case study outlines the specific steps taken by the Commission to have ratepayers buy into a $4 billion wastewater improvement project.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is the water, wastewater, and municipal power agency for the city and county of San Francisco. In 2006, the commission launched a multifaceted public involvement effort as part of its long-term capital plan to rebuild aging wastewater infrastructure. To date, this strategy has led to a close working relationship with its most vocal opponents, as well as better public and media awareness of sewerage system needs.
When the estimated cost of the plan was unveiled at more than $4 billion in April 2008, there was little public outcry. In fact, most stakeholders and the media urged PUC not to delay the project.
It wasn’t always this way however. In 2002, California voters passed a $2 billion bond measure for a seismic upgrade of the Commission’s 241km (150mile) gravity-based water system. This bond originally had included a $1 billion wastewater capital component, but it was removed shortly before the 2002 political elections.
One of the City's brick-lined sewers
The wastewater component was removed because politicians and strategists said that public ignorance of wastewater treatment system issues would sink the entire measure. Also, environmentalists opposed the lack of public involvement in the development of the wastewater capital program.
In response, PUC in 2006 launched an aggressive public outreach effort. The goal was to raise awareness about San Francisco’s sewage system and its repair needs.
The project team began by adopting the philosophy that the purpose of outreach is to make the public understand how important sewerage systems are in protecting public health and the environment. People will never support a large capital bond if they don’t understand what it’s for.
The team developed a risk-based communication plan to increase people’s familiarity with the wastewater management system, build a public participation base, and maximize public involvement in project development. The plan consisted of promotional activities, advertising, community meetings, media interactions, surveys, focus groups, and citizens’ and technical advisory committees. Although the plan included milestones leading up to the programmatic environmental review phase, these were made 'fluid' to allow for changes in San Francisco’s complex political and social climate.
Next, the project team needed to engage key cyclical processes for targeting each stakeholder group in between milestones. Such stakeholders included the Commission’s five-member governing board, a newly formed citizens’ advisory committee (composed of PUC’s most vocal opponents), a technical advisory committee of wastewater management professionals, and the public.
After developing the plan, the project team conducted a citywide survey of the public’s knowledge of wastewater management, its feelings about a large capital bond, and the preferred communication methods. This established a measurable public outreach baseline and provided justification for the launch cost of this aggressive outreach effort.
Table 1. Survey highlights
Familiarity with wastewater management systems
Only 26% "very familiar" or "familiar"
Importance of well-running sewerage system in protecting public health
87% "very important" or "important"
Importance of well-running sewerage system in protecting local waters
84% "very important" or "important"
Importance of public participation
93% "very important" or "important"
The team conducted the telephone survey in December 2005, and 803 households participated. Survey results clearly indicated that, although few were familiar with wastewater management systems, nearly everyone considered them vital to protecting public health and the environment (Table 1). Also 93% of respondents thought public participation in wastewater management projects was important. Respondents also said they preferred to be contacted via mail (Table 2).
Table 2. Preferred participation methods
Read mailed information
Write letters to officials
Respond to mailed survey
Read e-mailed information
Meetings at city hall
In January 2006, the project team created a citywide mailer with a detachable postage-paid postcard in English, Spanish, and Chinese. The team timed the mailer to coincide with a citywide advertising effort, a new project website, and a related feature article in San Francisco’s most prominent newspaper. The mailer outlined the wastewater management system and the need for fixes. It also asked people to rank five aspects of the capital improvement plan – aging pipes, odors, biosolids, combined-sewer overflows, and flooding – on the postcard and drop it in the mail. (Team members used these results to craft subsequent public outreach messages.)
The project team sent out more than 300,000 mailers to local residents. Nearly 9,000 cards were returned and 7,000 included contact information so people could receive project updates. This group became the team’s outreach base for the rest of the project.
Between 2006 and 2008, the project team used multiple methods to raise public awareness of the wastewater management systems. They included:
• Three series of citywide public meetings
• More than 60 regularly scheduled neighborhood meetings attended by staff
• Ongoing meetings with key stakeholders and advisory committees
• New educational short film:
• Treatment plant tours for schools and the public
• Project newsletters
• A new website (www.SFsewers.org)
• Strategically placed informational kiosks at libraries and community centers
• Biosolids compost giveaways
• Neighborhood sandbag pickups during winter rains for flood-prone areas
• Advertisements in newspapers and on billboards, buses, radio and the web, and
• Television commercials
The team adopted this outreach approach not only for this major capital project but also for ongoing investment in wastewater infrastructure.
For years, San Francisco media only covered wastewater issues reactively (whenever problems arose). Likewise, commission personnel rarely coordinated their responses to media inquiries and avoided media attention; they did not see it as an effective public outreach tool.
Under the new communications plan, all media and most public inquiries are first directed to the Communications Division, which ensures that responses will be coordinated and consistent. Division staff typically arrange for reporters to speak with the appropriate wastewater managements personnel and carefully prepare these personnel beforehand so the interviews go as smoothly as possible.
Communications Division staff also offered the media opportunities to tour the Commission’s 150-year-old brick-lined sewers. To date, they have taken reporters from nearly every local newspaper and radio station on a tour. These tours lead to feature opportunities on national television shows, such as Oprah and Dirty Jobs, which, in turn, generated interest among international production companies.
Communications Division staff also encourage the media to cover positive stories, such as PUC’s efforts to maintain sewers and catch basins so they continue to function smoothly. During winter rains, for example, Division staff issue flood alert press advisories and invite television news stations to film PUC crews cleaning catch basins and sewers before major storms.
In addition, the project team capitalized on the 'topic du jour' scheme when possible to further cover San Francisco’s wastewater management issues.
Before the public outreach effort began, many criticized PUC’s wastewater management and capital-planning programs. Criticism and resistance lessened, however, as communications improved and the public became more involved in Commission programs.
For example, at the PUC meeting in which the team presented capital project costs and asked to begin environmental review, the chair of PUC’s citizens’ advisory committee stood up and publicly praised the team for creating a plan that best represents the public’s needs and wants. This was a far cry from his initial criticisms. And fears of public anger over the project’s estimated $3.4 billion to $4 billion cost have not materialized.
Even the media’s coverage of PUC has become more positive. For example, the major papers have published editorials urging that much-needed sewerage fixes not be delayed.
The project team had begun a Two-year programmatic environmental review. The team is also in the midst of defining the capital projects, and has begun to engage the public in a project to rebuild digesters in an environmental justice district, and to build even broader long-term support for the wastewater management program.
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