In a representative democracy, all citizens have the right to access government services, to meaningfully contribute to government decisions and to share equitably in the benefits of government programs. The many decisions made in Washington, D.C., have important implications for our day-to-day lives, as do the decisions being made in state capitals across the country.

While public input into decision-making is a critical component of our democracy, studies indicate that, in particular, overburdened communities — those excluded from the mainstream due to factors such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, language or immigration status — are largely unrepresented in certain critical aspects of decision-making. These include energy planning and decision-making processes that drive energy production, distribution and regulation.

Government agencies shape and define public access and allocate program burdens and benefits. When these agencies lack the direct or informed lived experience of inequity and being overburdened by injustice, their work will be at risk of continuing to overlook public needs. Left unchallenged and unchanged, there is the increased likelihood that government policies will inadvertently perpetuate injustices.

While agencies recognize their specific mandates and work to fulfill those goals, policymakers are also becoming aware that they need to do more to reach communities that may be unaware of and underserved by their programs. This includes communities of color, indigenous communities and low-and moderate-income communities. Consequently, it is necessary for these communities to be more meaningfully engaged as partners and stakeholders in government decision-making.

Recognition of the link between equity and meaningful access to government decision-making is occurring at both the federal and state levels.

Federal Action

President Biden’s Executive Order 13985 on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, the first order he issued after taking office on January 20, 2021, notes that “equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths.” The order recognizes that certain individuals and communities have been denied equal opportunity and that the negative effects of that denial have produced “entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions.”

In response, the order directs federal agencies to embark on a “systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes.” It directs agencies to, among other things, adopt “methods to assess equity, including assessing whether agency policies and actions create or exacerbate barriers to full and equal participation by all eligible individuals.” It also directs agencies to “conduct assessments as to whether underserved communities and their members face systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities available pursuant to those policies and programs.”

The order also launched the Justice40 Initiative, which is a whole-of-government effort to ensure that federal agencies work with states and local communities deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to overburdened communities. Although the order only applies directly to federal agencies, it may still affect state agencies that receive money for federal programs.

State Action

A number of states also recognize that engaging all of the public leads to improved discussions, inclusion of more and varied information, better informed decision-making and stronger solutions to problems. States such as California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Hawaii and Connecticut have all taken action at the legislative and regulatory level to increase access. The multiple benefits of increased inclusion demonstrate that it is worth the investment of government, community groups and organizations who work for the common good.

These states understand that the structure of many agency engagement practices can discourage diverse public participation, with barriers related to timing of agency public engagement; effective notice to communities of proposed agency actions; sufficient publicity to effectively reach community members; the accessibility of venues for meetings; and language access.

Legislative options exist for promoting equity and access both broadly across state agencies and specifically in state public utility commissions. For example, Maine requires state agencies to specifically consider equity effects on communities as part of agency consideration of the climate effects related to agency actions. The statute also requires agencies to bring recommendations back to lawmakers regarding further improvements that the Legislature could make.

Colorado’s H.B. 21-1266 (2021) seeks to incorporate overburdened communities and historically underrepresented voices in public processes and decision-making by codifying outreach best practices at the air quality control commission. The bill also requires that a plan be developed to promote the adoption of environmental justice processes in other state agencies. This legislation creates an independent environmental justice ombudsperson who reports directly to the executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment. H.B. 21-1266 also creates an independent environmental justice advisory board to help inform agency policy and decision-making.

In recent years, state lawmakers have also passed laws requiring utility commissions to do a better job ensuring that all customers benefit from the transition to clean energy. For example, Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (S.B. 2408, 2021) requires the Commerce Commission to study and report to the Legislature regarding the effectiveness of low-income electricity and gas rates and suitable design improvements. Upon completion of the study, the commission is authorized to permit or require utilities to file tariffs establishing low-income discount rates. The bill also significantly increased minimum spending levels for low-income energy efficiency programs.

Colorado’s S.B. 21-272 (2021) requires the state’s Public Utilities Commission to adopt rules to inform all of its work “to provide equity, minimize impacts, and prioritize benefits to disproportionately impacted communities and address historical inequalities.” Another bill (S.B. 21-103, 2021) gives the Colorado Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate expanded authority to intervene before the commission on environmental justice, just transition and decarbonization issues.

Only with a conscious effort to rehabilitate public access and participation will government agencies be able to reflect the needs of overlooked Americans — rural and low-income communities and communities of color — and ultimately empower those communities and the rest of the public to make state government more inclusive and thus more representative.