Waterways Ireland’s purpose in life

Waterways Ireland is currently (I presume) implementing its Corporate Plan 2011–2013 [PDF], which still has a month to run. That plan set out, inter alia, a mission:

Our mission is to provide a high quality recreational environment centred on the inland waterways in our care, for the benefit of our customers.

It also had core values, which is nice, and a vision:

Our long term vision is to create an interrelated waterways network which will provide accessible recreational benefits and opportunities for all.

We wish to create facilities and services which will attract and impress visitors from home and aboard, supporting and encouraging the tourism and recreational industries in Northern Ireland and Ireland and promoting sustainable economic growth across the island of Ireland. We seek to protect and enhance the natural environment in and along our waterways for the enjoyment of future generations.

For the period of this plan we intend to focus on the consolidation, improvement and promotion of existing waterways in order to maximise their use. We will progress toward our long term vision by focusing development on the Ulster Canal.

And it had strategic objectives:

To deliver the benefits and opportunities the waterways can provide across a range of areas, Waterways Ireland has identified 6 strategic objectives which will drive the delivery of our Mission and Vision and the objectives set out in this Corporate Plan. These Strategic Objectives are to:

1. Manage and maintain a reliable and high quality waterways network.
2. Develop and restore the waterways network.
3. Enhance the existing waterways network to widen its appeal to users.
4. Promote increased use of our waterways resource principally for recreational purposes.
5. Assess, manage and develop the assets of Waterways Ireland.
6. Develop an organisation of excellence.

Reading that lot, it seems to me that the focus was inward rather than outward, perhaps more in line with traditional engineering-led waterways management than with the new and exciting marketing-led organisation of the future.

The mission is de haut en bas, with waterways coming before customers, and the first sentence of the vision continues the theme. The second sentence does mention economic affairs, but “supporting and encouraging the tourism and recreational industries” suggests that tourism and recreation are something that other people do, not something that WI does: it does not seem to see itself as part of the “tourism and recreational industries”.

The intro to the strategic objectives is pure management gobbledegook, but the really revealing bit is the list of objectives. The last two are inward-looking, but note the ordering of the first four and what the balance of elements says about the corporate focus: WI is going to

  • manage and maintain the waterways network
  • develop and restore the waterways network
  • enhance the waterways network
  • and after that promote increased use.

This is what used to be called a sales model: design and build your widgets first; then go and flog them to the punters. There is an alternative approach: start by finding out what the potential punters might want and then design and build your widgets to meet their needs. In reality, of course, you do something in between, because you’re not starting with a blank slate: your factory can make one particular kind of widget, not all possible kinds. And, similarly, WI’s main asset is a collection of waterways, not of (say) amusement parks or bookshops.

But a marketing focus could help an organisation to think about how its widgets are to be used. The result doesn’t have to be as crude as adding the word “solutions” to everything; it can be used to shape how the organisation presents its widgets and to whom it presents them. And, in my view, WI needs to do that because, according to the only reliable (and admittedly inadequate) measure we have, the Shannon traffic figures, waterways usage has been declining for at least ten years. [I know that there are other waterways, and many other types of activities thereon, but I don’t know of any published statistics about the extent of usage.] WI needs to reimagine the waterways.

When Jimmy Deenihan spoke in the Dáil on 16 October 2013, he said:

The [budgetary] provision will enable Waterways Ireland to deliver on its core activities and targets, which include keeping the waterways open for navigation during the main boating season and promoting increased use of the waterways resource for recreational purposes. This expenditure should also assist in developing and promoting the waterways, attracting increased numbers of overseas visitors and stimulating business and regeneration in these areas. Capital funding of almost €4 million will be made available to Waterways Ireland to facilitate the ongoing maintenance and restoration of Ireland’s inland waterways, thereby increasing recreational access along the routes of waterways.

My attention was attracted by the phrase about keeping waterways open “during the main boating season”, which suggests a new, restrictive policy. However, the rest of the list is pretty much in line with the existing objectives. I hope that something more radical will come out of the corporate planning process in which WI tells me it is currently engaged.

By the way, note that there was no mention of either heritage, which was the excuse for nicking the waterways from the OPW, or northsouthery.

One response to “Waterways Ireland’s purpose in life

  1. Pingback: Closing the Shannon in winter | Irish waterways history

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