The Bill of Confusion
A look at the utility invoices sent out to consumers in many cities makes it clear why water is an under-valued resource. The unclear language and confusing acronyms do nothing to educate or inform. Some invoices do not even specify whether they use actual readings or estimates. These pieces of paper seem to be designed to negatively impact the consumers’ trust in the water quality and their willingness to pay.
This is a pity because the invoice sent out by utilities month after month could actually be a great tool of communication. It could encourage consumers to engage with municipalities and utilities in increasing conservation, improving regulation, reducing pollution and a multitude of other positive ways.
A recent study carried out by Water Research Commission (WRC) in South Africa has found that simple changes could dramatically increase consumer understanding of municipal invoices. Instead of crowding the invoice with text and numerals in small font or using codes that are difficult to decipher, bills should have easy-to-read fonts with clutter-free format. The usage charges should be easy to comprehend and explanatory text should not use jargon. The payment options, contact information, breakdown of utility services should all be laid out in clear and concise fashion.
In South Africa, many people had problems in comprehending words such as “arrears”, “remittance advice”, “rebate” and “consumption”. Abbreviating litres to l or kilolitres to kl created confusion. Perhaps a similar survey in other multi-lingual parts of the world or in districts where people do not have higher education would reveal similar results.
An interesting finding in the WRC report is that higher socioeconomic groups prefer detailed information in their bills; it helps in cultivating trust. However, the opposite is true for lower socioeconomic groups who find detailed information overwhelming – it inhibits trust. A fine balance needs to be struck. The report recommends that municipalities should involve their customers in the development of their invoices.
A two-page bill with a summary on the first page followed by a detailed explanation of tariff structure and meter readings on the second page has been suggested as a better option for the broad spectrum of consumers than trying to squeeze all the information onto one page;
Meanwhile, the tapwater consumers of Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, Kansas City and some other cities receive invoices which could well serve as models for the rest of the world. Not only do they state the amount owed by consumers with details about the charges but include charts comparing their usage across previous months and the average used in the city. Many of them give important tips on conserving water. In the move towards paperless offices in the past decade, many utilities have been giving consumers the option to receive and pay their bills online. These invoices do their bit to help consumers reduce their water and energy footprint.
As cities invest in improving and automating their water and sewerage networks, tariffs need to play a greater share in financing investments. There is little chance of this happening if utility invoices are about as intelligible as doctor’s prescriptions.