Building a national consensus: why customer stewardship matters in infrastructure

This fourth in a series of Policy Outlook papers, by The Better Infrastructure Initiative and The University of Sydney’s John Grill Centre for Project Leadership, addresses the pressing issue of how to create customer-led infrastructure and the long term benefits it brings to stakeholders.

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Modern Australians have greater needs, expectations and dependency on their infrastructure today than at any time in history. Today, great infrastructure reaches beyond the physical boundaries of a road, school or hospital, a water or energy system. It helps lift the economic and social outcomes of a neighbourhood, city and even the national economy. Despite this, we have a long way to go before we can say our infrastructure operates from a strong customer‐centred culture.

Whether it’s private capital operators or government agencies delivering infrastructure services, we need to embrace a wider definition of the customer and include “customer stewardship” as an integral part of our infrastructure design and operation – including adaptation to new technologies and evolving customer expectations.

Put simply, our infrastructure services need to be more vested in customer outcomes over the longer term – and this is what will bring wider social and economic benefits.

What is “customer stewardship” infrastructure?

Customer stewardship exists where infrastructure owners and operators have the customer at the heart of their long term decision making.  In this context, it can be identified through the collective set of management principles and practices that focus on delivering those long-term customer services, even as technology and customer needs change.

Switching to long-term outcomes

Every aspect of our modern built environment has a profound interdependency with the broader infrastructure network. Buildings are becoming technically more complex with specialist energy, telecommunications, water and waste management systems. Combined with the transport needs of their occupants, the quality of amenity, liveability and economic viability of our environment is heavily dependent on our broader infrastructure interactions.

Adapting to new technology and shifts in population structure is changing the way communities interact with, and set expectations for, their current and future infrastructure requirements. That means good customer outcomes cannot be achieved by focusing only on the short term.

Infrastructure needs to be opening up new pathways for enhanced economic performance and social impact long-term.  And that requires a future based on relationships, reciprocity and participation.

All this means the customer role in infrastructure is increasingly centre stage.  Social media is empowering the customer voice and new players are offering data-enhanced products and services disrupting traditional models. This helps change the assumption that infrastructure users are passive and homogeneous, as opposed to dynamic and highly differentiated customers.

Benefits of existing customer stewardship-focused infrastructure

Finding the right path for transition is challenging for many infrastructure service providers.   Although diligent engineering, technical design and maintenance of assets are obviously still critical, they are not enough. The paper provides a framework of 10 principles of customer stewardship including innovation, customer-centric design, stakeholder management and leadership.  It is intended that the principles become a tool to not just identify and measure customer stewardship but also provide a mechanism to change.  The paper looks at how some of our best known infrastructure providers are already acting as exemplars of customer stewardship by demonstrating these principles.

Long‐term customer stewardship of infrastructure is fundamental to our future success. It needs to adapt and serve as a catalyst to security, growth and prosperity.  When this exists, we can expect a higher likelihood of infrastructure services that are more productive and adaptive, reducing risk and encouraging better financial performance.

We hope you enjoy the paper.

Download Policy Outlook Paper No. 4: Building a national consensus: why customer stewardship matters (PDF, 3.6 MB)

Access previous policy outlook papers