UNICEF’s WASH programme: facilitating good governance – a gamechanger for the public water industry

UNICEF Lebanon is equipping three of the country’s water establishments with state-of-the-art tools and technology to improve their customer service performance and optimise their internal resources.

Simon Balsom
Water running in a UNICEF-supported water establishment in Lebanon.
UNICEF

29 August 2019

In the first initiative of its kind, UNICEF Lebanon, in partnership with the Ministry of Energy and Water, is working with three of the country’s water establishments and equipping them with state-of-the-art tools and technology to improve their customer service performance, build their communications capacity and to optimise their internal resources. This collaboration, not only a first in Lebanon but also the first of its kind in the world by UNICEF, WASH section, is being heralded a gamechanger in improving communications and interaction between water establishments and their customers.

Three water establishments will see their systems strengthened and capacity developed as part of an overall modernisation of customer services.

UNICEF’s assessment for the project began in early 2018 and is scheduled to complete at the end of 2020. Within this period, three water establishments – the Bekaa Water Establishment, North Lebanon Water Establishment, and South Lebanon Water Establishment – will see their systems strengthened and capacity developed as part of an overall modernisation of customer services.

The project objectives are: to advocate equitable and safe water for all; to promote water equity and sustainability; to encourage the public to subscribe to water services; to promote water bills payments; to increase the visibility and transparency of water establishments; to build the in-house capacity for communications and customer relations of water establishments; and to apply a community engagement programme to regain community trust and confidence.

Water pipeline at a UNICEF-supported water establishment in Lebanon.
UNICEF

Funded by the EU Regional Trust Fund ‘MADAD’ and the Government of the United States, the project represents a significant departure from UNICEF’s history of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) interventions in Lebanon. Historically, the focus has been on emergency response and infrastructure improvements – and much of this driven by the influx of refugees as a result of the Syrian Crisis. This time, UNICEF is set on raising the water industry’s game when it comes to customer services that affect children in Lebanon and their families.

“We are assisting three of Lebanon’s most pressured water establishments to restore trust for the benefit of local communities, including children and their families." Olivier Thonet, Chief of WASH at UNICEF Lebanon.

Why is this important? Simply put, at the heart of every successful utility public service lays a flawless customer service protocol. Over recent years, and largely due to the arrival of refugees as well as following years of low investment, Lebanon’s water establishments have developed a somewhat strained relationship with their customers – the result of lack a of customers’ trust and confidence. Although subscriber levels remain high, many customers quickly fall behind in their payments, often citing what they feel to be ‘poor service’ from their regional water establishment as the reason.

“We are assisting three of Lebanon’s most pressured water establishments to restore trust for the benefit of local communities, including children and their families” said Olivier Thonet, Chief of WASH at UNICEF Lebanon. “Over the next 18 months - in close cooperation and partnership with three water establishments and in coordination with the Ministry of Energy and Water - we will overhaul and modernize the customer services and communications of selected water establishments in Lebanon providing system strengthening and capacity building support”.

Customer service and communications center of a water establishment.
UNICEF

UNICEF’s plan includes developing deeply-established systems within each of the three establishments and provides for a fundamental rise in in-house capabilities to handle communications and customer relationship issues.

Critically, the plan will focus on three areas:

  • Consolidated Call Centres
  • Customer Registration Portals
  • Mobile Application (App)

These state-of-the-art calls centres are already operational in South Lebanon Water Establishment since April 2019 and it is expected to be completed at North Lebanon Water Establishment and Bekaa Water Establishment by mid-September. Accessible 24/7, agents of water establishment are available during official working hours and a modern Interactive Voice Response technology is used to offer numerous options to the calling customer outside working hours. The call centre is equipped with an advanced technology and database where a call centre agent will be able to identify the customer, track their history, and give an immediate response to every query.

In a further improvement, although not customer-facing, IP Telephony will be introduced – each water facility will house its own server and, through this, the cost of telephone communications will be dramatically reduced.

UNICEF is assisting water establishments in customer database cleansing and validation.

A customer portal will be developed where each customer, of the water establishments benefiting from this project, can register and benefit from having a unique account to view service history, due and previous bills, payments, complaints, submit and track the status of a request.

Also, UNICEF is assisting water establishments in customer database cleansing and validation – an essential business practice - by developing a new customer digital database structure and providing necessary mobile devices to collect and validate the customer database through a door-to-door survey.

By the end of 2020, mobile users will easily be able to connect with their water establishment via  a self-service method that is always available and without the need for a call or even to visit an office. Customers will be able to open cases and submit inquiries to the call centre from their smart phones through a tailor-made mobile application. In addition, the app will provide a unique interactive feature to track open cases and monitor through to their resolution.

Throughout the development of the programme, UNICEF’s WASH team engaged several of the organisation’s departments in the process.

Key amongst these was the IT department and innovation team. Together, they completed a full assessment of the water establishments’ network systems, and analysed how new systems would affect these. From the beginning it became clear that UNICEF’s proactive interventions would have a positive impact on the IT infrastructure of the entire water establishment.