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Culture is the key to an effective water quality management system

| Karen Pither


As a drinking and recycled water auditor, I have been lucky enough to work with public and private water providers all along the eastern coast of the Australian mainland, from southern and western Victoria, metropolitan, coastal and western NSW and QLD, as far north as the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria.


Regardless of the utility size and resources, I have found that culture is the key factor when it comes to water quality risk management plan adequacy. But even with the best plan, if it’s not implemented it’s worthless and this is where culture has a significant impact, affecting risk management and audit compliance.

One of the ADGW Guiding Principles reads:

System operators must maintain a personal sense of responsibility and dedication to providing consumers with safe water’

We rely on our water operators to keep the health and wellbeing of the population in their hands, and there is a need to support them with resourcing, robust frameworks for incident management, training and management review so that they have all that they need to ensure safe water is produced and supplied.

Where I find high compliance and good risk management in an audit, the acceptance of personal responsibility is notable in operational staff, as well as all levels of management and usually the organisation as a whole. When I find low compliance, I tend see a culture where the organisation is not committed to water quality best practice, often due to a lack of understanding, training/awareness and continuous improvement. This leads to an environment with little support for operational staff and disenchantment and is in contradiction to the above guiding principle.

When reviewing incidents root cause analyses, it is usually a swiss cheese effect of several contributing factors, however in many incidents, culture is often identified as a major factor.


For example, in the tragic Dreamworld incident in the enquiry report indicated that such rudimentary and deficient safety management practice can only exist when leadership from the board down are careless in respect of safety. Four people lost their lives in this tragedy.

In the case of Havelock North, the water supplier was the Hastings District Council (HDC). The enquiry found that HDC did not embrace or implement the high standard of care required of a drinking-water supplier, particularly considering its experience of a similar outbreak in the same supply in July 1998, and the history of positive E. coli results. As a consequence, it made key omissions including its assessment of risks to the supply.

So what is culture and how can organisational culture focussed on water quality management be fostered? Culture can be seen as defined values that set a standard for organisational behaviour. For example, openness or transparency can be a value, and the subsequent behaviours can include open lines of communication, accountability and an attitude of problem solving.

As part of the Water industry, we can do more to support our operators and foster a culture of best practice water quality management, including:

  • Identify and communicate values and behaviours throughout the organisation. Leaders to lead by example.

  • Educating decision makers, directors, boards and elected officials on the importance of the safe provision of water, acknowledging that many decision makers have competing priorities, with competing priorities.

  • Promote the use of existing frameworks to make implementation of water quality management business as usual, for example, incident management, training, quality control and assurance and continuous improvement.

  • Use the risk assessment to prioritise risk management actions.

  • Lift up and empower team members with knowledge, resources, advancement and training opportunities.