Understanding the potential for public engagement to improve water services

Understanding the potential for public engagement to improve water services

How can collective working help trigger effective change? Can we define best practices for engagement to better support water stakeholders in changing their actions and behaviours?

Service expectations, climate change, ageing infrastructure and austerity create significant challenges for water utilities.  Typically, as challenges arise, water utilities employ known technical solutions with little consideration as to whether cultural or behavioural interventions might address the same issue more effectively at lower cost.  Only when the technical solutions prove unviable, due to cost or environmental impact, are other approaches considered.


Mobilisation initiatives’ support water stakeholders in changing their actions so that collective water services can be delivered more efficiently and/or with reduced impact.

Mobilisation initiatives are already implemented in a variety of water service areas (e.g. behaviour change to reduce fat and oil in sewers, voluntary river wardens to report on pollution, or use of water tanks to reduce water demand), but implementation is ad hoc, evaluation is limited, and practitioners have nowhere to go for good practice in this field. 


There is a need to address this problem, and to treat processes of mobilisation as worthy of ‘knowledge-based policy-making’ as other fields.  There is also a need to recognise, support and value expertise in these social aspects of water management, whether this be in the study and theorisation of them (academic expertise) or in the design and delivery of initiatives (practitioner expertise).  The objectives of this research area are therefore to:

  1. Produce a taxonomy of initiative types in order to map their nature and extent;
    • To use information about mobilisation in a variety of policy fields and to identify a ‘draft taxonomy’, showing the different ways that water mobilisation initiatives might vary (e.g. in their topic focus, in the intended participants, in the anticipated change in practices)
    • To execute a survey of water utilities gathering data on the variety of contemporary engagement initiatives
    • To report on the nature and extent of mobilisation initiatives in contemporary water practices
    • To finalise the taxonomy of mobilisation initiatives types


  1. To develop and test guidelines to support the design of tailored mobilisation initiatives;
    • To draw on the literature to develop a set of draft guidelines for tailored mobilisation initiatives;
    • To examine selected water mobilisation initiatives in detail as a means of exploring the appropriateness of the draft guidelines to a variety of water contexts;
    • To finalise guidelines for supporting the design of tailored mobilisation initiatives

Since the inception of TWENTY65, it has become apparent that there is the need to develop a network of 'social scientists of water management'. The Enhancing Water Services through Mobilisation, will, in collaboration with partners:


  • Hold meetings with both practitioners and academics to examine the needs for a network of ‘social scientists of water management’
  • Establish goals and functions of the network
  • Operate network, reviewing goals and functions through time.


How can people get involved?

People can get involved in two ways:

  • Let us know if you are interested in the social science of water network and what you think it can do to help you at
  • We are looking for people interested in the project might be willing to tell us about the initiatives they are developing or know about that involve participation between service providers and the public. For this purpose the public may be customers / residents, but they might also be sets of specific stakeholders who are numerous, for example, farmers or takeaway restaurants owners. 

Academic participants in this theme

Dr Liz Sharp

Dr Alison Browne

Dr Martina McGuiness

Dr Emma Westling