How much do people know about the water service? A Laboratorio REF Ricerche white paper with Amapola

22 Mar, 2023

Foto dell'evento di presentazione del primo Rapporto di Sostenibilità di Gruppo Autosped G

From the cost of bills to the use of tap water and the reasons for consumer discontent, the REF Ricerche white paper in collaboration with Amapola provides a comprehensive picture as a starting point for practical action and innovation.

Confused ideas, little understanding of the value of water, communication difficulties, as well as pockets of mistrust. This is the picture that emerges from the latest white paper from Laboratorio Ref Ricerche in collaboration with Amapola, which examines people’s perceptions and views of the integrated water service. The disconnect needs to be understood and contextualised, but, above all, it requires a response through specific engagement, listening and dialogue initiatives, to be detailed in a second paper.

Who runs the service?

The survey found a general lack of knowledge about the key aspects of the water service. This includes the identity of the provider: fewer than one person in two knows who the water service provider in their area is, 11% admit they don’t know, 14% believe it is a central, regional or provincial government agency – who are certainly not involved – and 30% say it is the local council.

«Although the transfer of the integrated water service from local authorities to professional providers – in other words, to industrial companies – began thirty years ago, it is still proceeding very slowly in some regions,» says Donato Berardi, director of the REF Ricerche think tank. «People have still not realised that the water service is no longer under the influence of politics and state finances. This is probably due to the failure to recognise that the water bill is an inescapable condition for every improvement to the service.»

Services: out of sight, out of mind.

Perception of the nature of the services provided is equally distorted: one person in six believes the provider only supplies drinking water and fewer than one in two knows that the provider also tests water quality and potability. In short, most people continue to think that the services that “enter” and “leave” our homes are those managed by the provider: the water supply and sewage management.

Service cost and value.

As far as the water bill is concerned, four people out of ten think that charges are set by the water company, and are unaware of the existence of the national regulator (ARERA). The confusion over charges emerges in another statistic: only 40% of people know the actual cost of a cubic metre of water, while 30% were completely off the mark and another 30% say they have no idea. «Not knowing who is responsible for the money collected, how it is used, the services covered by the charges, and the gap between the price and the value of water means that people see the water bill as a levy, rather than as the cost of the resource, the service and the partial recovery of the water itself,» explains Berardi.

A geographical and generational issue.

People continue to mistrust tap water. About one person in three is certain that the water supplied to homes is of poor quality. Choosing to use tap water seems to be a geographical and generational question. Younger people, possibly in response to the green revolution of which they are the main standard-bearers, are more sensitive to and prioritise sustainability: 57% of people aged between 18 and 24 choose tap water, compared to 47% of the over-64s. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who say tap water is good varies significantly between northern Italy (77%), central Italy (70%) and the south (66%), consistently with consumption of tap water, indicating that the choice is often conditioned by the quality – presumed or real – of the water supplied to our homes.

The viewpoint of the industry.

Besides highlighting and mapping the disconnect between the man in the street and the water service, the REF Ricerche and Amapola white paper also relates the public view of the sector to the more informed view of the people who work in the industry through a two-pronged survey. «The aim is to establish an ideal point of contact between the two experiences, by highlighting areas of difference and agreement, in order to indicate strategies and programs to foster greater consensus,» says Amapola founder Luca Valpreda.

Future, service quality, digitalisation, sustainability objectives: comparing public expectations with the skills of the experts – spheres that are sometimes aligned, sometimes not – is the necessary premise for rebuilding the link between the service and its stakeholders, so that the industry can move towards policies that are more effective, sustainable and endorsed.

Pragmatists and dissidents.

The survey also identifies an area of people at “crisis point” with the water service and providers, in the original neutral meaning of the term, who are looking for a new approach. These are the pragmatists (47%) and the dissidents (13%): the pragmatists display a moderate and informed degree of dissatisfaction with the integrated water service, the dissidents take radical ideological positions (“we shouldn’t pay for water”). In total, 60% of people interviewed reported at least one reason for dissatisfaction with the service: in this group, 34% named more than one reason for discontent.

«As far as the pragmatists are concerned, a process to regain trust by improving the service and relations with the provider is possible,» explains Valpreda. «Listening, dialogue, discussion are vital areas that cannot be sacrificed for operators who work with a shared resource like water and are inextricably tied to their stakeholders. This is why we are planning a second paper, which will establish a sort of categorisation of the malcontent by analysing the reasons for dissatisfaction, the prevailing emotional responses and, above all, the information, communication and participation initiatives that can gradually be put in place.»

The full survey can be downloaded here.