Why This Matters: Lessons from Abroad: What US Policymakers Can Learn from International Examples of Democratic Governance

October 12, 2023

With the climate crisis mounting, rapid build-out of renewable energy infrastructure is more important than ever. The passage of recent blockbuster legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), makes this build-out possible and signals a renewed political willingness to embrace government as a force for social, economic, and environmental good. But a long history of corporate capture of public funds demands that careful attention be paid to how renewable projects are carried out, and for the benefit of whom.

In a new Roosevelt Institute issue brief, my co-authors and I explore a handful of real-world experiments with new modes of democratic governance that can serve as strong examples for US policymakers to draw inspiration from as implementation efforts continue at home. From Ireland, to Costa Rica, to Taiwan, we show how a range of countries have used new institutional mechanisms to enhance public control and participation in governance, curb the influence of special interests, and ultimately yield democratic results. Some of the case studies we examine offer ideas for how public investments can be made democratically. Others illustrate how citizens can become active participants in the regulatory process. And still others offer suggestions for democratically producing goods and services, building and developing infrastructure, and providing utilities.

These examples are especially important to consider in light of the ongoing policy debate around IRA implementation. As the legislation’s key investments in clean energy infrastructure begin to be deployed, many worry that the existing legislative and regulatory landscape—specifically the burden posed by procedural requirements—make it ill-equipped to accommodate the transition with the speed it demands. These concerns are understandable, and a sense of urgency behind them is essential: After decades of delayed action in combating the climate crisis, rapid deployment of renewable energy and construction of new transmission lines are crucial to meeting our climate goals and mitigating further ecological catastrophe and the economic fallout that will come with it.

Faced with these facts, too many have turned to cutting procedural requirements designed to foster democratic input instead of looking for ways to improve those requirements. But the reality is that the wholesale limiting of public participation will not give us a sustained and accelerated green transition. Over the long term, eliminating public participation threatens to undermine the support needed from the decades-long project of transformation the climate crisis requires. To that end, we need to be looking for examples of how to build efficient, democratic processes into the transition.

As the case studies we explore in our brief show, public input, democratic accountability, and robust standards need not come at the expense of effectiveness and efficiency throughout the policy process. Utilization of governance mechanisms, like public ownership, multi-stakeholder boards of directors, or citizens’ assemblies, can democratize public investment while ensuring that policymaking and implementation are democratic, effective, and efficient.

For example, Germany’s state-owned development bank, KfW, shows how a public ownership structure, democratic board membership, and strong financial backing from the government can allow for prioritization of public interest goals and an impressive administrative capacity that allows for rapid deployment of programs. Similarly, the equitable ownership and governance structure of Spain’s Mondragón Corporation—the world’s largest voluntary association of independent worker cooperatives—illustrates how worker ownership and employee decision-making power can help strengthen organizational performance and efficiency.

As implementation continues at home, policymakers would do well to look to these and other international experiments with democratic governance if they are serious about building a just, green transition that endures.