Currently, policymaking is torn between two demands. On the one hand, issues become increasingly complex, calling for the incorporation of expertise in the policymaking process and increasingly complex decision-making procedures. On the other hand, citizens want to have a say in policymaking. Public participation in policymaking processes is often seen as a golden bullet, adding both input and output legitimacy to public policies.

A case in point is the German procedure for planning electricity grids. On the one hand, the planning electricity grids is a highly technical issue. On the other hand, the building of power lines is highly politicized, as citizens do not want power lines close to their homes. There are many local protests against power lines, and grid construction in Germany has not kept up with the pace needed to manage the energy transition from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energies.

The German legislator decided to tackle these acceptance problems with an overhaul of the public participation institutions. Now, at the demand planning stage – determining which power lines are needed – citizens, companies and interest groups can contribute their statements to the demand plan on two occasions. First, the transmission systems operators planning the grid develop a draft for the network development plan based on assumptions about energy production. The first draft of this plan is open for consultation, and the operators have to take the public’s submissions into account when revising the plan. Second, this draft is submitted to the federal network agency, which can approve the plan after a second round of public consultations and send it to the federal legislator, who translates the plan into law.

While this form of public participation seems to satisfy one of the core tenets of good participation institutions – get citizens into the process as early as possible – our research shows some flaws of the institution that may even cause the well-meant endeavour to backfire.

First, we find little evidence that the transmission systems operators react to the public’s statements in the consultation. When comparing citizens´ contributions and the operator’s reactions, we see an institutionalized misapprehension. While citizens have the impression that the consultation is a method of voicing their objections to route proposals for power lines, its actual goal is to determine the technical need for connecting two points on the electricity grid. This misapprehension is bad news for the efficacy of the consultation: the consultation was designed to reduce citizens’ resistance against power lines, but if citizens feel that their comments have no impact, their resolve against power lines may strengthen.

These results suggest that using a simple “the-earlier-the-better” logic is inadequate in the design of consultation procedures. Apparently, the German consultation occurs too early in the policymaking process to produce meaningful exchanges, and consultations at a later stage of planning could prove more constructive.

However, we have no simple dyadic consultation relationship between the transmission system operators and the public, but instead a two-step consultation regime: the operators’ principal, the federal network agency, might on the one hand monitor the operators’ consultation and on the other hand consider arguments submitted to its own consultation.

Empirically, we find, second, that the federal network agency reacts only to arguments made in the contributions to the operator´s consultation. The more contributions with ecological arguments argue against a given power line, the less likely this power line is authorized. To explain why the federal network agency reacts to the contributions to the operator´s consultation, but not to its own consultation, we have to consider the timeframe of the two consultations. The operators presented the first draft of the network development plan on 30 May 2012, and the consultation was held until 10 July. From then on, the submissions to the operators’ consultations were available. The operators submitted the revised draft to the agency on 15 August, and the agency immediately began assessing the validity of the grid projects and conducting its own consultation from 3 September to 2 November. The final decision was published on 25 November. Thus, there were only three weeks between the closing of the agency´s consultation and the publication of its decision. Most of the assessment of grid projects must have occurred beforehand. The submissions to the consultation of the operators had been available from the beginning of the assessment period. Thus, it is plausible that the agency used the information available when it began its assessment but could not properly process the contributions to its own consultation.

In terms of policy advice, our argument is twofold: first, the point that the purpose of consultations must be clearly communicated is often made, but our case reveals that misunderstandings still occur. The operators, the agency and citizens had different notions about what the purpose of the consultation was. Second, the time frame for consultations must be long enough to allow decision-makers to wait for the consultation to finish before beginning their decision-making. In our case, the agency has only three weeks to decide after its consultation ends. By combining both critiques, it might be possible to suggest abolishing the operators´ or the agency´s consultation in order to allow for a longer consultation. This may appear to be less public participation, but it could in fact be better public participation.

– Simon Fink, University of Göttingen and Eva Ruffing, University of Hannover

– This blog draws from a paper by Fink and Ruffing recently published in the Journal of Public Policy and is available free to read until the end of October 2018

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