First of all, the programme offers participating utilities a comprehensive analysis of their performance in comparison with colleague utilities from across Europe. This “fitness check” of a utility and its service helps participants to find key improvement areas and -priorities, in a structured and objective way.
The assessment provides a wide view on utility performance, from the perspective of the customer as well as utility management. Next to “output areas” like water quality and finance & efficiency, attention is paid to “throughput areas” like asset management and energy efficiency, and also to emerging topics like climate resilience and (cyber)security.
Proper definitions of variables and indicators and the availability of good quality data are the basis for a sound performance assessment. In view of this, EBC applies as much as possible IWA’s Performance Indicator System, today a global standard for definitions of variables and indicators. Additionally, EBC uses several checks and balances in the assessment process to secure the data quality.
At the start of each exercise, in particular new participants are invited to an Orientation- and Training workshop. The benchmarking co-ordinators of participating utilities receive a Reference Guide, which describes the assessment methodology in detail. To submit performance data, participants get access to EBC’s online benchmarking platform.
After a thorough data validation process EBC provides each utility with an individual assessment report in which its performance is analysed in comparison with colleague utilities. This report enables utility management to identify areas and issues that need to be improved (“where to improve”).
In the second step, based on the performance analysis, the programme offers participants an opportunity to improve by learning from good practices and innovations available in EBC’s extensive European utility network (“how to improve”).
Key for improvement is the access to the large network of utilities who operate in the same business and who face similar challenges and opportunities.
At the end of each benchmarking exercise, EBC organises a benchmarking workshop to enable delegates from participating utilities to meet, discuss assessment results and exchange good practices and innovations.
Other options that the EBC-programme offers to get inspired to change things for the better are site visits, an online discussion forum and the possibility to arrange exchanges.
The programme actually acts as an “improvement broker” – for example, resulting in an ongoing staff exchange between the Welsh water utility DWR Cymru and the Dutch water utility Oasen.
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Benchmarking should not be a one-time effort. First of all, it takes time to establish a stable flow of reliable performance data. Furthermore, to get a clear picture of the performance of the organisation and its service and decide about the appropriate improvement measures, one needs a picture over a longer period of time. Then, to eliminate weak spots, a utility should set targets, define and implement concrete improvement measures and monitor the effects of the measures over time (plan-do-check-act cycle).
Improving water services is a matter of the longer term. Basically, this process never ends and therefore EBC recommends to embed the benchmarking instrument in the annual business planning cycle.
Benefits of benchmarking
As one can imagine, benchmarking is not an easy job. It costs quite some effort to provide good quality data and to prepare a sound improvement plan. But benchmarking clearly offers several benefits:
- it gives you a clear picture of the performance of your utility (“dashboard”);
- it learns you in detail how you perform against your peers (“performance gaps”);
- through active participation in EBC’s utility network you can find ways to improve your service.
Does it really work?
Documented cases from Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands – where benchmarking programmes have already been running in the water sector since the 1990’s – show that the efforts pay off. The Dutch example  learns for instance that since the start of the programme, costs per connected property have gone down with 35% (corrected for inflation), while at the same time service quality (in terms of water quality, reliability and customer satisfaction) has improved and investments levels have maintained at the same level.