Is there a limitation on how citizens can engage with your agency, specifically with agencies that offer public works services? Well the Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) located in Auburn, California, developed a method that has attracted the nation’s attention, including the Daily Show with Jon Stewart!
The devastating draught conditions California is currently experiencing is one of the reasons why the PCWA launched a new smart phone app last October. The mobile app provides up-to-date information on the California drought conditions, water efficiency resources, bill paying options, and allows citizens to report water wasters. The latter of the features is what draws attention from the media, including Jon Stewart.
The mobile app allows citizens to take pictures of other people, or businesses, which are wasting water and report them to the agency. The mobile app uses GPS tracking location, so the PCWA has an accurate location on where the water waste is occurring. According to a USA Today article, the creators want the mobile app to encourage water conservation and this gives citizens another option to report water waste. The PCWA receives approximately 35 to 40 calls a week regarding water waste. Close to 10% comes from citizens using the mobile app.
Aside from overlooking the negative implications of encouraging an environment of citizens “snitching” on their neighbors, as Jon Stewart’s satire highlights, using this method of engagement can potentially create many benefits for a community. Engagement opportunities between water agencies and their customers seem dry, mainly consisting of going to the water agency’s office in order to turn on service and pay a deposit. However, as water conservation continues to be a hot topic, agencies can look at this model for promoting engagement opportunities with their customers.
Establishing the mobile app allows citizens to get current information on water issues, i.e. water outage, contamination, pollution. Reporting water waste by taking a picture gives the agency pertinent information on specifics of the complaint being reported, and allows them to better evaluate offenses and establish priority, as opposed to getting a phone complaint (no visual). The app can give agencies the resources to monitor and track repeat offenders, and provide evidence for hearings (whether the evidence would be admissible in a formal hearing is another topic of discussion).
As one customer states in the USA Today article the mobile app “… feels like policing. I think the first thing I’d do is ask people if they’re aware and have them stop.” Ideally, this would be a simple solution and easy process, but what if a person does not want to be in a confrontational situation with a stranger, neighbor, or business. Using this method also expands beyond just water agencies. Some municipalities use this to report potholes on their streets. Additional usage can include pollution, roadkill, littering, or building violations in Historic Districts. Overall, I think this is an innovative program to promote citizen engagement with their public utility agencies.