Ethics, Transparency, and Public Participation

Background

Commissions that regulate utility services have a huge 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 Retail Electricity and Gas Restructuring).

Too often, regulators make decisions without meaningful consumer input. Or worse, they act with undue influence from regulated entities or political pressure. Decisions are called into question when policymakers have a conflict of interest or the policy process has not been transparent.

Often the regulatory process is stacked in favor of utilities and business. 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 decision-making 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 Consumer Advocate Offices).

ETHICS, TRANSPARENCY, AND PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: Policy

ETHICS, TRANSPARENCY, AND PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: Policy

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 award reasonable advocate’s fees, expert witness fees, and other costs of preparation for and participation in a utility hearing or proceeding to a customer or organization representing customers in the 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 make the regulatory and oversight process simpler and more open to 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. (Some states require an attorney to represent a party in a utility proceeding, while others allow non-attorneys to participate. The policy would oppose a proposal to prohibit non-attorney intervention.)

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 AARP Government Integrity and Civic Engagement Principles, as well as Ethics and Accountability).

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