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Making sure the public interest is not lost in translation

Before we create the energy and water systems of the future, we have to ensure we’re all on the same page. That’s why the New Energy and Water Public Interest Network - New-Pin’s -consensus-building work is so vital.   In this blog, Francesca Moll and Sharon Darcy explain what we’ve been doing.

How do we hear the public interest voice in the energy and water sectors?  It isn’t always easy to have a constructive discussion.

Rightly or wrongly there is a feeling that voices of ‘ordinary people’ remain unheard at the heart of the energy and water industries. Companies faced with this charge may see things through another lens; how best to meet the challenges of climate, socio-demographic and technological change whilst operating under an intense political spotlight and delivering a significant amount of policy and regulatory change.  Government and regulators may have a different perspective again, often focussed on the need to address short-term affordability pressures within electoral and regulatory cycles.

Given such divergence, how do we find a way forward? What does fairness look like? Who is responsible? And how do we ensure we’re future-proofing our energy and water systems so that they continue to serve majority needs in the future?  Fairness, after all, is relevant not only within generations but also between generations.

These questions have never been more vital. Energy and water face huge upheaval. With the technological revolution represented by digitisation and the smart energy meter rollout, a polarised political mood, the need to prepare for a low carbon future and the risks represented by climate change, it is clear that the stakes are high.

To navigate through this, society needs to agree some basic definitions, develop a common language and begin to build consensus on broad directions of travel.  Without this, misunderstandings can result and it can be difficult to make progress.  With this in mind, how discussions about energy and water are framed is crucial.

If framed narrowly (e.g. in terms of the challenges facing each sector separately and a particular group of consumers at a particular point in time), the challenges that both energy and water sectors may need to tackle as part of more complex systems, and people may also face as citizens living in communities, may go unrecognised in key deliberations.  The risks and opportunities revealed will clearly be influenced by the time-frame applied and scope of the discussions that take place.

In periods of significant transition, such as that being experienced currently in the energy and water sectors but also in society more widely, when existing ways of doing things are being questioned and new approaches are coming to the fore, it is important that all relevant perspectives on an issue are heard.  If debates are framed in a limited way, they may be seen as excluding those that may have a legitimate interest in the area being discussed – and potentially self serving for existing players and institutions.

Taking a more inclusive approach to change also enables the revisiting of what have traditionally been seen as the social and environmental ‘externalities’ that characterise the energy and water sectors.  It can lead to fresh insights as to how we as a society overcome the tragedies of the commons and of the horizon.

It was with this in mind that Sustainability First set up our New-Pin project in 2015.  We brought together citizen, consumer and environmental representatives with regulators, government representatives and energy and water companies, to encourage frank and constructive discussion on the hard topics in the sectors today.  We wanted to bring the disparate voices with an interest in the sectors together and to share experiences.

These different interests can sometimes find a win-win solution.  However, this is not always possible.  It’s important to recognise that there will sometimes be conflicting interests and that these need to be balanced in a manner that is as transparent and fair as possible.

To begin this process, we started with a ‘Straw Man’ definition of the public interest: The public interest is the aggregate well-being of the general public, both short and long-term. It comprises the combined interests of consumers, citizens, the environment and investors for both today and tomorrow.

Over the course of three years and ten New-Pin workshops, we have tested and refined this definition with our participants, and through a process of deliberative engagement, further developed it into a New-Pin Public interest dashboard. This sets out desirable long term public interest outcomes, featuring both typically ‘consumer outcomes’ (towards the left) and ‘citizen outcomes’ (towards the right). Consumer outcomes include quality of service, value for money, and efficiency, while citizen outcomes involve thinking about long-term environmental sustainability, resilience, place / community based well-being and fairness issues.

This dashboard features in our upcoming final New-Pin Final report, alongside 8 practical Public Interest Agendas and Levers for Change for decision makers to use to help them deliver public interest outcomes. We hope that these can begin to point the way towards greater consensus and shared understanding.   The report will be launched at our major New-Pin conference on the 28th February.

New-Pin has started to build consensus around a public interest ‘voice’ for water and energy. However, this is something that needs to be continually worked at.  As our energy and water systems and indeed society go through significant transformation, maintaining a continuing public dialogue as to what the long-term public interest is in the sectors and how public interest outcomes are best delivered will be vital so that change happens with people rather than being done to them.

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