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

October 12, 2023

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“Democratic governance and transparency can often strengthen the effectiveness, efficiency, and speed of projects. In fact, strengthening legislation aimed at protecting democratic accountability by engaging community members earlier in the process could lead to greater speed and efficiency in the long run.”

Executive Summary

The passage of major legislation over the past two years has made the goal of a green economic transformation possible. With these policy wins secured, attention has turned to implementation, sparking an important debate on the left about the capacity of democratic governance to rapidly build the infrastructure necessary to combat the mounting threats of the climate crisis. Some argue that public input mechanisms result in delays to implementation of critical projects—that public participation is too onerous and time-intensive, and that the imminent threats posed by the climate crisis demand circumventing participatory requirements. However, this need not be the case. In fact, strengthening public engagement throughout the policy process can lead to greater speed in implementation, because concerned community members are given a chance to shape the process, making it less likely that they will eventually challenge projects through costly and lengthy mechanisms—such as litigation or organizing—that often cause implementation delays.

This issue brief explores six international, real-world experiments with democratic governance that show the power of public input. These cases illustrate how different policy design features can help ensure that policymaking and implementation are democratic, quick, and efficient, with a focus on decision-making along three overlapping dimensions: 1) producing goods and services, providing utilities, and building or developing infrastructure democratically; 2) making regulatory decisions democratically; and 3) making public investments democratically.

From these six cases, we draw four lessons for democratic governance in the US. First, crafting inclusive governance structures can help protect against power imbalances and ineffectual efforts at fostering public inclusion in decision-making processes. Second, the way in which public investments are implemented informs both the ownership and governance of production. Third, the risk of mismanagement is greater in the absence of oversight and accountability mechanisms. Lastly, crafting a robust civic infrastructure is a long-term, multi-coordinated effort that requires commitment from policymakers. The international examples we explore in this brief and the lessons we draw from them can help guide US policymakers as implementation efforts continue.

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