Water Utility Management is (not) a game: Consensus in Uncertainty
“And now, I give the word to my M.D. (Managing Director)”, and with that off-the-cuff acronym, shortened title of power, the players embodied their roles and the game was on. The Operational Manager of Macondo Water Services quickly glanced at the Financial and Costumer Managers to see if everything that needed to be said, was said. A nod from both of them produced a sigh of relief. The MD took stride into the concluding slides and, with the regal demeanor of a life-long politician, thanked the audience for their attention and his team for their support and collaboration. With that, in 20 minutes, Macondo Water Services’ 10-year strategic plan had been set forth. Now, two more competing strategic plans would follow.
Three utilities in total, all with the same starting conditions and potential decisions to make. Four managerial positions within each utility, each responsible of specific goals tied to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and a limited grant to turn around a failing utility in 10 years. Onto this backdrop, the Utility Management Simulation Game (UMSG) took place over 3 weeks with the Water Services Management and Short-course participants of the Managing Water Organizations module. The UMSG is an interactive role-playing game where participants must negotiate among each other to reach consensus on the investment decisions for a drinking water utility. Participants decide on tariff rates, infrastructure expansion, human resource management, maintenance, and capacity development investments for a ‘game year’, and then receive feedback on how their decisions have impacted the relevant KPIs.
The heart of the learning experience of the UMSG lies between promises, uncertainty, and negotiation. Before the first decisions are simulated, participants must present the vision and 10-year plan for improving the performance of the Macondo Water Utility. The simulation is then ran for 10 turns (or 10 ‘in-game’ years) after which participants present their results against their original plan, share the experience of making decisions with uncertainty in trade-offs, and reflect on how their decision-making processes were carried out (or could have been carried out better). During each round, the General, Operational, Commercial, and Financial Managers must push for their preferred investment plans and either democratically reach a consensus, or have the decision made autocratically by the General Manager; this portion adds a considerable element of team working and negotiation.
Due to the complex inter-relations between decisions and outcomes, the UMSG causes players to continuously reconsider and re-evaluate how their choices are impacting the utility’s performance, supporting them in reflecting and analyzing in-depth what causal relations can occur in water utilities. Here are some of the statements from participants after the game was finished and they were asked to reflect on the experience:
“I observed that despite the availability of any kinds of resources, utilities cannot be effective unless the staff work in a team in a coordinated manner that should be facilitated by enlightened managers.” – Participant from Ethiopia.
“I thought we were all on the same page and discussing the decisions together…my perception of the situation wasn’t necessarily the reality…This viewpoint is something I should have considered and I feel I should have made a more deliberate effort to ensure everyone was included and their indicators were being addressed.” – Participant from the United States.
“This game revealed the everyday choices water utility [operators] make. Key in this game was compromised and cooperation.” – Participant from Ghana.
“I did notice the difference in thinking and perspectives, where I was thinking in terms of an Excel sheet, some were thinking from a perspective from their home country, [t]hus more realistic…I did learn a lot from the different perspectives.” – Participant from the Netherlands.
As shared by the participants, the UMSG facilitates the learning experience of the challenges of managing a water utility, both in terms of revealing the inter-relationship between technical and capacity development investments, as well as in generating discussions and reflection among participants from different backgrounds who are seeking to reach a common goal through consensus.
The UMSG is currently being adapted and prepared to be launched as an open access tool under the Boosting Effectiveness of Water Operator Partnerships (BEWOP) project, a collaboration between IHE Delft, UN-Habitat’s GWOPA, Dutch water service providers, and partner water utilities in Southern countries. Stay tuned for its release!