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

October 12, 2023

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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Patrick Bigger

Patrick Bigger is the research director of the Climate and Community Project. His previous roles include lecturer of economic geography at Lancaster University, and Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manchester School of Environment, Education, and Development. His research interests range from public lands governance in the United States to multilateral development bank lending policy.

Johanna Bozuwa

Johanna Bozuwa is the executive director of the Climate and Community Project. Her research focuses on extraction and fossil fuels, energy justice and democracy, and the political economy of transitions.

Isabel Estevez

Isabel Estevez is deputy director of Industrial Policy and Trade in the Roosevelt Institute’s Climate and Economic Transformation Program. She has served as senior policy advisor at the Sierra Club and advised the Ecuadorian Ministry of Planning and Development, among others, on green industrial policy. Isabel holds a PhD and an MPhil from the University of Cambridge, where she specialized in industrial policies for economic transformation.

Shahrzad Shams

Shahrzad Shams (she/her) is the program manager for the Race and Democracy program at the Roosevelt Institute. Her research focuses on the intersection between racial justice and economic justice, how culture and politics interact with public policy, and strategies for combating authoritarianism in the US. She holds a JD and MA in Public Policy and Management from The Ohio State University.

Carla Santos Skandier

Carla Santos Skandier’s work focuses on addressing climate impacts through the implementation of equitable and democratic solutions. Her professional experience ranges from Brazil to China to the US, and she has served as the manager of the Climate Program at The Democracy Collaborative. Carla is a Brazilian attorney who holds a LLM in energy law and policy and climate law certificate from Vermont Law School.