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“There’s no higher calling in terms of a career than public service, which is a chance to make a difference in people’s lives and improve the world.” -Jack Lew

If you run a water or wastewater system, your business is public service.  Your career involves a special charter from your neighbors and friends to help take care of the fundamentals of life so that they can all focus on other things.  They do not want to have to worry about how water gets to their faucet or how wastewater leaves their home.  But they expect it to be done well.  They trust you to handle it and that trust should not be taken lightly.  Their trust demands that you do an excellent job.

To do an excellent job of running a water or wastewater system requires playing both the short game and the long game.  In the short game, you need to work within budgets to operate your current system as well as possible.  While you do that, you also need to play the long game by planning for maintenance and improvement of your system.   A significant part of this long game requires leveraging emerging technologies to make your system more efficient (both from a process perspective and from a financial perspective).   You want to leave your successor a better system than the one that you inherited.  You want to validate the trust the public placed in you by giving them the best possible system their tax dollars can afford.  But how do you know which improvements to make?  How do you know which technologies really would be a good fit?  

You could attempt to keep up with emerging technologies yourself, but this can be unfeasible.  Keeping up with technology is time consuming and you have a day job that requires your attention.  Moreover, properly implementing most of the water/wastewater innovations you will encounter will require a great deal of technical expertise.  Sometimes the level of expertise required is not readily apparent.  Technologies can seem straightforward on the surface but when you dig deeper, they are much more complicated than they appear.  

For example, a client who decided to implement cellular radios at remote sites.  This client employed technical staff and reasoned that they would save money by utilizing their existing staff to purchase and deploy the new cellular radios.  The deployment resulted in a functioning solution.  The radios worked and the client was happy that they had saved money.  

Not long after the implementation, the client began to experience intermittent communications problems from the remote sites.  When we were called out to troubleshoot, we discovered they had used improper (home grade) switching equipment with the cellular radios that was causing the communication problems.  Then we discovered that they had used cellular radios that operated on the 3G frequency and were incapable of 4G connectivity.  The reduced bandwidth of 3G meant that they were restricted in how much data they could bring back from the remote sites and would be prevented from expanding their data collection and analysis at those sites.  Moreover, it’s likely that 3G will be phased out by the cellular providers over the next few years. If this happens, the client’s cellular radios will cease to function.

The scariest problem with the deployment though was that the cellular radios were configured with public internet facing IP addresses.  What this means, is that anyone with an internet connection could conceivably discover them and hack into them.  The correct way to configure them would have been to use private IP addressing from the cellular providers.  But since this option is not commonly advertised, how would their technical staff have known to do this?

Had the client hired us from the beginning, they would have ended up with a secure solution with enterprise-class equipment that would provide ample bandwidth for future data analysis activities at the sites. Lack of trust led to an inferior, problematic solution that did not serve their community well.

Part of the temptation to not trust an outside expert is the cost associated with obtaining the advice.  Consultants can be expensive and their cost begs the question as to whether or not their expertise is really necessary. Again, the answer comes down to trust.  Just like a good mechanic will only perform work on your vehicle that’s necessary, a good consultant will be able to quickly ascertain the extent to which their expertise is needed. They won’t sell you more of their advice than is required.

How do you know if the consulting firm you’re working with is a good one?  How do you know if they are genuinely looking out for you and not just trying to sell high priced solutions to drive their own bottom line?  How do you know they have your best interests at heart?  

The simple answer is that you have to know the people you’re working with in order to trust them.  Trust is built over time through repeated successful collaboration.  You have to have confidence that the person you’re working with understands you and your goals.

This is not to say that trust should be given blindly.  Just like you build trust with your community through years of quality water management, you build trust with an outside consultant through years of successful engagements.  Time and experience build trust.  Along the way, you can tell you are on the right path and working with a trusted partner because they will exhibit certain key hallmarks:

  • They’ll talk to you about the challenges you’re trying to solve, the goals you dream about achieving, and the fears you have about moving forward.  They’ll talk about all these things before ever getting into discussions about technical details and/or products.
  • They’ll spend a lot of time driving at the “why?” behind your initiative.
  • They’ll sometimes talk you out of work.
  • They’re willing to tell you the truth even if it’s bad news.
  • They’re not afraid to discuss the unknowns of a potential project.
  • They’ll seek to understand your budget before proposing solutions.
  • They’ll know about the industry and not just about specific products.
  • They’ll give you a sense that they are more of a partner and less of a salesman.
  • They’ll have a history of proposing thoughtful designs tailored to meet your situation.

Strong partnerships built on trust are the foundation of long-term success because they enable your community to take advantage of outside expertise, without the fear of being overcharged or misled.   By working with a person (or firm) who exhibits these hallmarks, you will provide your community with an excellent chance of achieving a well-run, well-planned water/wastewater system that utilizes resources efficiently and serves the community well.