Measuring and comparing the performance of water operators, a practice called benchmarking, was first popularized by the private sector and later adopted by public utilities. It is largely concerned with improving ‘efficiency’, with an overwhelming focus on finance and technical indicators. This emphasis might make sense for private water operators, when profit is the end goal, but it does not adequately account for public service goals such as health, gender equity and environmental sustainability in countries where basic rights have not yet been fulfilled and where financial investments may not be fully recouped. Water Operators’ Partnerships (WOPs) have not been immune to this tension. Much of the priority setting in these knowledge-sharing agreements has been driven by benchmarking criteria, sidelining broader social goals in the process.
We present the concept of ‘social efficiency’ to help bridge this knowledge-sharing gap. Using this framework, public utilities can be judged by the impact they have on public welfare. The more a water operator contributes to the well-being of all citizens – improving health outcomes, environmental conditions, socio-economic opportunities and affordability – the more socially efficient it is. Such progressive results do not necessarily require lean management, financial surpluses or the best technology. A plan to address inequality, a committed workforce, and good intergovernmental coordination may have more impact on overall utility efficiency than a narrow focus on non-revenue water or maintenance costs.