Decency and public utility firms

Shortly before the winds of Typhoon Milenyo began battering Metro Manila, the public utilities that form the lifeline of modern communities ground to a halt.  Electricity was the first to be shut off, followed by the telephone service.  I expected the water supply to be next.  To my pleasant amazement, in the UP campus where we live, the water that comes from Manila Water’s pipes flowed uninterrupted.

I texted my compliments to the water firm’s Territorial Business Manager in charge of the campus, and asked how they kept the water going even after the Luzon power grid had collapsed.  I later found out that because of Manila Water’s stand-by generators, the pumping stations continued to function, and only 5% of the households in the entire East Zone concession suffered water interruption.  The company promptly deployed its tankers to these waterless neighborhoods to deliver their daily supply of water.

In total contrast, we got our electricity back only after one full week of waiting.  Every morning, my wife and I took turns to call Meralco’s emergency number to report the fallen power line leading to our house.  And every afternoon, I went around the campus searching for Meralco repair crews who might be working somewhere in the neighborhood.  Meralco’s telephone numbers were understandably clogged during this time, and waiting for a customer service agent to take up a call meant having to listen to the relentless playing of the firm’s signature song.  The song celebrates Meralco’s vaunted reliability and concept of service.  I thought that continuing to play it under the circumstances was the height of corporate insensitivity.

On the fourth day, eating dinner by candle light had lost all its novelty and romance.  We ate early and went to bed early.  It was impossible to do any reading.  My mood turned really sour when on the fifth day the lights came back in every household in our neighborhood except in ours.  Even the street lamp outside our house came to life, taunting us with its amber light.  Instead of Meralco, thieves came the previous night to saw off a portion of the rubber-coated aluminum wire, and now the live wire was dangerously dangling by the road. I explained this to the call center agent who took my call, but all she could utter was a standard line that resonated none of the urgency and despair I felt.

I began to contemplate installing solar panels on our roof and fantasized about smashing the electric meter when one morning a Meralco meter reader sheepishly asked to be let in to take a reading while the power was still down.  Finally, I caught up with a Meralco van and pleaded with its driver to take a look at our power line.  He said our street was not on his list for the day but that he would in any case ask a repair crew to restore the connection that same afternoon. A repair crew came and promptly restored the power.  When my granddaughter gleefully announced the return of Spongebob on the TV screen, my resentment evaporated and my faith in Meralco was instantly restored.  I realized how easily we forget our grievances when service providers show that they care.

But PLDT, the telephone company, was an altogether different story. It took two weeks before a PLDT crew would even take a look at our two landlines that went dead in the wake of Milenyo. I use our landlines mainly to connect to my Internet service provider.  By the time the repair men came, I had made up my mind about replacing my dial-up ISP with a wireless one.  Thank God telephones are no longer a PLDT monopoly.  The PLDT crew replaced the worn-out wires with brand new ones, but I don’t know what they did with the lines.  The dial tones of the two phones alternately vanish every hour.

One finds in these sketches three models of corporate culture.  What sets them apart from one another is an ethos of service that Manila Water, as a public utility firm, seems to have cultivated to a high degree.  It appears to be based on a few simple principles: anticipation of possible disruptions, adequate preparation for emergencies, regular maintenance of the delivery system, a continuity team that is activated in times of disaster, and provision of substitute services during prolonged interruptions of regular service.

If Meralco were half as conscientious as Manila Water, it could have sent its representatives to various neighborhoods to personally take down requests for repair.  It would have offered complimentary flashlights or lamps to its customers, accompanied by profuse apologies for the delay in restoring power. It would probably take the initiative to trim the trees that hang over power lines before every typhoon season, and replace old rotten posts with new ones without waiting to be asked.

If PLDT were half as sensitive as Manila Water, they would deduct from their monthly charges a substantial rebate for each day that the phone service is down. They might perhaps lend service cell phones or give away phone cards to households inconvenienced by service interruptions.  They might do something to secure the land lines so they do not go dead during heavy downpours.  They would not hide behind the voices of anonymous call center agents, or use these poor kids as buffers against an irate public.

Public utilities are called “public” because they are not like ordinary businesses.  They are impressed with public interest, which is why their privatization everywhere is typically greeted with dismay.  Manila Water is exceptional in this regard.  By valuing and caring for its clients, it has given privatization a good name.


Comments to <>