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The variable geometry of participation in VA SYD water services

Malmö
Sweden

 

 

VA SYD is a joint public company in the Region of Skåne that provides water, wastewater, and other services for Malmö, Lund, and other small cities. Launched in 1994 and finally structured in 2008, it tells the story of a privatisation threat that never became reality, giving way to a virtuous experience that renovated the old Water Department of Malmö in a creative way.

 

Today, VA SYD governance structures foster the coexistence of clear common goals and guarantees of autonomy for its different partner cities. Separate City economies live together, and guarantee a variable configuration of different services that are (or are not) entrusted to VA SYD by each City partner. In terms of VA SYD’s internal organisation, all the pre-existing sectors partially ceased power to the overall (merged) structure, avoiding the creation or survival of small ‘kingdoms’ separate from the global strategy.

 

To balance these losses, internal cohesion was reached through a ‘horizontalisation’ process that sought to ‘fluidify’ cross-cooperation among different departments and units and to valorise workers, which has contributed to increasing individuals’ commitment to fulfilling VA SYD goals. These objectives were pursued through providing a growing, positive work environment as well as a series of new spaces for open dialogue that were not limited to employees but also created new relationships with customers. Among them, the most visible are the Focus Group on Special Needs (created to adapt the service website of VA SYD to the exigencies of disabled citizens) and the Reference Group on Billing, which has met three times so far to discuss possible raises in consumer fares.

 

Although widely appreciated by customers, some of the innovative institutions did not produce strong results, as the experiments occurred in a socio-political framework where the issue of water is not at the centre of conflicts or a tense social debate and the cost of water is low for users in such a water-rich country (and with a well-organised social welfare system). From this perspective, the tools adopted internally to support a policy of ‘horizontal social dialogue’ proved much more effective.

 

Nevertheless, gathering together the different experimentations done inside VA SYD, it is possible to point out a general setting of policies that could be highly significant for other contexts. Any adaptations of these innovative measures and policies should probably strengthen the aspects of formalisation and institutionalisation, which in Malmö and Lund have not been necessary to date.