Ethics, Transparency, and Public Participation


Commissions that regulate investor-owned utilities and local boards where publicly owned utilities are authorized have a large effect on the lives of consumers. Few other government agencies compare. Their decisions affect the cost, quality, and availability of electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, and water. Vigorous oversight is essential to protecting consumer interests. This is true both in states with traditional regulation of monopoly providers and those that have introduced competition to their retail electricity or natural gas markets (see also the Retail Electricity and Gas Restructuring section of this chapter). 

Too often, regulators make decisions without meaningful consumer input. Or worse, they act with undue influence from regulated or unregulated entities that seek special interests and often remain hidden from public view. Decisions are called into question when policymakers have a conflict of interest, or the policy process has not been transparent. Recent criminal investigations of utilities, legislators, and regulators in several states document the harmful influence of special interests in seeking and obtaining regulatory decisions in their favor. 

Often the regulatory process is stacked in favor of utilities and large businesses. Concerned citizens, consumer groups, and small businesses may lack the resources, expertise, or time to participate fully. Some states have acted to expand public participation in the decisionmaking processes. They have tried to make consumer-input procedures less complex and costly. For example, some states have created programs to help pay consumer groups for attorneys and experts to participate in contested proceedings. These are called intervenor-funding programs. These programs help ensure that there is an informed and active consumer presence throughout regulatory processes. Most states also have a consumer utility advocate office (see also this chapter’s section on Consumer Advocate Offices). 



Increasing participation

Policymakers should adopt programs to help consumer groups take part in regulatory proceedings. They should fully fund these programs. 

For example, intervenor-funding programs provide a customer or organization representing customers reasonable advocate’s fees, expert witness fees, and other costs of preparation for and participation in a utility hearing or proceeding. Generally, states require a party receiving such funding to make a substantial contribution to the proceeding. They must also demonstrate that participation or intervention without an award of fees or costs would impose a significant financial hardship. 

Policymakers should simplify the regulatory and oversight process and enable the public and groups representing the public interest to participate. This includes reducing the complexity and cost of consumer-input procedures. It also involves making regulatory proceedings and stakeholder meetings more accessible. Groups that do not have an attorney should still be allowed to participate. 

Ethics, transparency, and accountability

Regulators should be free from conflicts of interest. They should be transparent in decision-making and accountable to the public (see also Government Integrity and Civic Engagement Principles, as well as the Ethics and Accountability). 

Regulators should provide vigorous oversight. They must ensure fair terms, conditions, and prices for telecommunications and utility services.