June 23, 2020

A Conversation with Will Pickering, Executive Director, Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA)  and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance

Radhika: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization. Who are you?
Will: I was born and raised in the Bay Area of California, and I’m also an avowed nerd—a political science junkie—and I spent a good portion of my adult life working in Washington D.C. But now I’m a proud Pittsburgh dad!
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Radhika: When I first met you back in 2012, I was working in government affairs at SFPUC and you were in a similar role at DC Water. How has your background in policy translated into your new role?
Will: I’ve been very lucky to work with executive leaders who were interested in the broader policy implications of their decisions. It meant that I often had a seat at the table, even tables you might not ordinarily think would include someone in government affairs. It was an incredible opportunity to be a sponge. Because of that opportunity, I have a wider breadth of knowledge and a better awareness of how a utility operates. And after working in policy roles—tracking legislation, reporting on the action—it’s refreshing to be in a position where I’m responsible for implementing the change that needs to happen. In this type of role, you’re not sitting back and watching the action—you’re in it.
Radhika: Prior to being named Executive Director, you worked on PSWA’s lead line replacement program—can you tell us a little bit about the program and the elements that contributed to its success?
Will: We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress as an organization since I joined in 2016. When I first started at PWSA, we were suffering the effect of a generation of neglect in our water system and were just coming to terms with the need for lead line replacement. We were a bit flat footed at the beginning, so we wanted to be as transparent as possible with the public to regain trust. We looked at it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to make things right. We didn’t want to just meet the minimum requirements, so we approached it with a more ambitious vision. And now we’re on course to replace thousands more lines than required, and our approach has served as a model for others. Old colleagues from DC Water have reached out to us, which we see as a big sign of success. We’ve also seen the deep importance of investing time in communication with our constituents throughout this program. We want to ensure not just customer satisfaction but to go beyond that—to help our customers see us as a partner. It’s been important to create open lines of communication, and to get the right people in place to deliver on those goals.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you?
Will: At its core it’s about looking at water—drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater—through a single, holistic perspective. It’s about looking at the issue of water not just from the utility perspective, but through a community lens. It’s about how water can impact a community and about bringing together different stakeholders to hear and understanding diverse perspectives.
Radhika: Pittsburgh is part of the Alliance’s Water Equity Taskforce, so I’m wondering if you can tell us how this has informed the adoption of more equitable practices at your utility?
Will: The conversation within our Water Equity Taskforce Learning Team has helped us break down a lot of communication barriers. Prior to joining the Taskforce, we didn’t have the solid relationships with our team members that we do now. It’s been incredibly valuable to come together and collaborate and getting to know each other on a personal basis has taken our work to another level. Participating in the Taskforce has influenced the way in which we’re looking at policies right now with respect to the pandemic and has made us think critically about what policies changes need to be continued in perpetuity after the pandemic ends.
Our work with the Learning Team and the Alliance helped me identify that PWSA does not reflect the community we serve, in a number of ways. Starkly, our workforce and the contractors we use to do much of our field work are not as diverse as the people of Pittsburgh. And I think like many utilities, and more broadly folks in the infrastructure and transportation sector, we have implemented policies historically that do not serve every community equitably. I am committed to hiring internally and contractors that more fully reflect the diversity of the community we serve, and looking hard at our policies and practices that may have fallen short in the past. To be a good community partner to everyone in Pittsburgh, we will have to do a better job at serving and working with Black communities and communities that have been historically underinvested in.
Radhika: Speaking of the pandemic, what else are you learning from your work to address COVID-19?
Will: One key thing that has really hit home for us is how essential our work is. Water utility workers aren’t traditionally seen as first responders, but the reality is that without our services, lives are at risk. It’s been really important for people to start seeing us in that light—and to see ourselves in that light. We’re lucky to have a board of directors who has guided our policies during this time with a strong customer focus. For us, it’s not about just meeting the letter of the regulations, it’s about asking what does it take for customers to not notice any difference in service during this challenging time. Our work on the Taskforce has influenced that mentality and, with our investments in technology and our dedicated workforce, I think we’ve been able to achieve our goal of maintaining bestin class service.
Radhika: What have you read recently that has influenced your leadership style? Or just rocked your boat? That is, if you have any time to read being a new dad!Lucy Will WFH_0.jpg
Will: It’s true! Being a new dad, I don’t have a lot of time for reading these days, but I do love listening to audiobooks. It’s part of my routine now—every morning I get up early and go for a walk. It’s a nice way to get in exercise, some solitude, and fresh air, and I can listen to a book while doing it.  Right now, I’m about halfway through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.  Listening to his story has put things into perspective for me—the obstacles that he was confronting and his determination in doing so is incredibly inspiring. I also recently read Extreme Ownership, which is about the concept of accountability lying 100 percent on a leader. It is indeed a pretty “extreme” idea, but one that I like—it’s an important instinct to look inward when thinking about change and leadership. I also enjoyed reading the biography of Pittsburgh’s first female mayor, Sophie Masloff, and studying up on the history of the city.