A military officer in 1997 pointed his gun at Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority Director Ek Sonn Chan. Mr Chan had gone to the general’s house because the military chief had refused to allow the installation of a water meter and give up the privilege of free water.
“The general put a gun to my head,” Mr Chan recounted during an interview at the Water Authority headquarters on Wednesday.
But Mr Chan didn’t back down. As in other situations in the early days in the fight to root out corruption in the capital’s water supply and turn the authority into a model of reform and good management, Mr Chan flexed some gentle but firm muscle.
“I called 20 military police who disconnected the supply so there was no water…. Then it was the general’s turn to come to us.”
The general arrived at the office with bodyguards, but was told to come back alone, Mr Chan said, noting that the general agreed to have a meter installed on his next visit to his office.
“It showed even if you are so strong, you are still forced to pay.”
This was one of many battles that Mr Chan won since his appointment in 1993 as director general, and his achievements were recognized internationally last week when PPWSA received the Stockholm Industry Award for having “successfully fought corruption.”
Mr Chan’s achievements have been no small feat in a country consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt on the planet.
So what was the secret of his success? Leadership and leading by example, Mr Chan says.
“In the beginning there were strong reactions…. They used to call even at night to scold me, resist payment,” Mr Chan said. “Everywhere people called me ‘water evil.’…. It is difficult to get support inside if you are losing a battle outside.”
Rooting out corruption inside the PPWSA itself was one of his biggest challenges, he said, and in 1993 the authority’s staff enjoyed free and plentiful water while pipes in surrounding houses remained dry.
“I called my management, saying I know you guys have free water supplies, and I give you three days to install [a meter] and pay [up]…. In my own model, the leader should be better than subordinates,” Mr Chan said.
To bypass corrupt middlemen, applications for water connections had to be made in person at the authority and, to stop the authority’s staff from profiting from selling materials such as meters on the side, the authority became responsible for installing water connections, Mr Chan said.
“What was very difficult was the collusion between staff and customers,” he said, noting that early on staff would commonly fake low water usage figures and split the difference of the real, higher, bill with the customers.
It took until 2000 to eliminate such flagrant abuses. And though some are still discovered today heavy penalties are imposed if discovered, he said.
“You would be kicked off the authority,” he said of those who violated his rules, adding that employees signed contracts to behave ethically. The widespread practice of “desk reading” bill estimates, instead of visiting customers’ actual meters, was banned.
Mr Chan said financial autonomy at the authority also permitted him to pay private-sector level salaries, a plea to donors resulted in assistance funds and, in person he persuaded government officials and the powerful to start paying their water bills.
Success is reflected in the PPWSA’s financial figures so far this year: an 11 percent revenue increase from January to May over the same period in 2009, 100 percent bill collection efficiency and only three staff members required to serve each 10,000 connected consumers. And water loss in the Phnom Penh supply was only 5.95 percent.
“A lot comes down to his [Mr Chan’s] personal integrity…. He set an example from the top,” Jan-Willem Rosenboom, country team leader of the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank said. Access to the highest levels gave him the power to withstand interference, Mr Rosenboom said.
The PPWSA does not simply exemplify, as some donors argue, what a manager can achieve without government inference, Kheang Un and Caroline Hughes say in forthcoming book entitled “Cambodia’s Economic Transformation.”
“Ek Sonn Chan has been crucial, not merely as a manager, but as a high-ranking politician who is adept at political maneuvering within the Cambodian hierarchy as he is at experimenting with Western management roles,” Mr Un and Ms Hughes wrote.
But, reform was also possible because politically connected businessmen did not hold stakes in the water supply business in Phnom Penh, Mr Un and Ms Hughes said.