We’re in the middle of a pandemic, thousands are dying in hospitals, schools are closed and millions are worried for their livelihoods. The question “what’s the purpose of business?” could feel like a blast from the past, from a bygone era where we had nothing better to do than discuss “social purpose” at length.
I agree. This is not the time for debate. But it is time for action. The water sector agrees. Many water companies see the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to make a material and positive contribution to society like never before. And to show in actions that the interests of customers and wider society sit at the heart of the business and the decisions they’re making at this time.
The strong public service ethos of those working in the industry has already borne fruit. Frontline workers’ commitment – and that of those supporting them – has come to the fore. Contingency plans have kicked in and, despite social distancing restrictions, customers continue to receive reliable water and waste services that are critical for public health at this time. For this, and the swift escalation of support for people struggling to pay their water bills, the industry should be congratulated.
The resilience of the water companies is being tested and so far is holding up well but the challenge is far from over. Beyond the delivery of core functions, company Boards wishing to provide public value will face important questions. Do they put employees with less to do on part time pay or keep the salary bill constant to support the local community? Can they provide their contractors with vital cash flow as business elsewhere dries up? Are they providing support from their own finances, not just relying on other customers to pay for social tariffs for those who are vulnerable? Do their financial decisions allow them to be a shock absorber during the economic downturn that is upon us? Will they continue to deliver fully on their promises about the environment?
There are some early encouraging signs, with some companies creating funds for local communities or providing targeted help for those on the front line in the efforts to tackle Covid-19. The industry is coming together to support the contractor community.
One thing is clear though. The public is watching and judging how business responds to this crisis. Over recent weeks, there has been widespread commentary about how high street retailers, airlines, railways, supermarkets, insurers, banks and many others have reacted in terms of their behaviours towards employees, their supply chain, and, of course, their customers. The question “what does it mean to be a responsible business?” including how today’s circumstances should influence executive pay and dividend decisions, has moved from the business pages to being front and centre of people’s mind.
I’m looking forward to seeing more examples of how a public service ethos is driving decisions in water companies to support the local environment and communities they serve.
– Chief Exective, Rachel Fletcher
[Edited on 9 April 2020 at 15.15pm]