New York PSC
Rory Christian is Chair of the New York Public Service Commission and CEO of the New York Department of Public Service.
The swell of public interest in energy and environmental matters has surged into the forefront of our nation's consciousness. Record-breaking weather, coupled with increasingly frequent extreme climate events, has ignited a desire within the public for a change from the status quo.
Coupled with that desire for change, is a need to be heard and to shape the actions that follow.
Public Service Commissions and Boards of Public Utilities, vested with the power to drive change, can embrace this burgeoning interest, and align actions and policies to expedite desired outcomes. We must explore innovative avenues that facilitate engagement, embracing equity and inclusivity, as we educate, inform, and empower public engagement in our vital work.
The public, accompanied by a myriad of new stakeholders, are engaging public utility commissions and boards at unprecedented levels. The shift from in-person to remote meetings compelled by the constraints of the pandemic, has widened the spectrum of participation.
The evidence is overwhelming: What was once a mere trickle of public comments in significant rate cases has transformed into a torrent. A decade ago, a major rate case in New York garnered no more than six hundred public comments, whereas recent proceedings have received several thousand.
Rate cases, the lifeblood of Commissions, present a formidable challenge. While any party can participate, the path to meaningful engagement is fraught with obstacles that perplex the uninitiated and often test the patience of seasoned participants. Some maintain the view that newcomers hinder rather than enhance the overall discussion. That could not be further from the truth.
Engagement Can Be Mutually Beneficial
The Biden administration's Open Government National Action Plan advances a more inclusive, responsive, and accountable government. The plan includes commitments to increase the public's access to data to better advance equity, engage the public in the regulatory process, make government records more accessible to the public, and improve the delivery of government services and benefits. New York's landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act echoes this call, emphasizing equitable outcomes and avoiding disproportionate burdens on marginalized communities.
"Government works best when we create channels for members of the public to regularly engage with us — and hold us accountable for improving the lives of all people, including those communities that have been excluded from social, economic, and civic life," according to the Open Government National Action Plan, issued December 28, 2022.
By embracing the growing desire for engagement, Public Utility Commissions and Boards have the opportunity to shape policies that truly reflect the needs and aspirations of the general public. Simultaneously, we can educate and inform the public about those policies and the actions needed to bring them about. Parties with extensive experience engaging with utility regulators are well acquainted with provisions that new entrants may not be familiar with.
The well-understood regulatory compact, for example, is a recognition that utilities have an obligation to serve all customers, and with that obligation is the opportunity to earn a reasonable return on investment while ensuring safe and reliable service at a reasonable cost.
Informing new stakeholders of this, and other regulatory and legal standards, will help establish a more uniform understanding for all, setting uniform expectations while making engagement more effective and productive.
Enhancing opportunities to engage can help to dispel the specter of perceived bias and the claim of regulatory capture that often follows regulatory action. Parties and individuals who have long participated in regulatory activities possess an undeniable advantage over newcomers.
Familiarity with the process and the individuals involved provides a competitive advantage. It is our duty to level the playing field, granting equal opportunities to all who engage with the regulatory body; thereby enabling new stakeholders to make meaningful contributions. The principles of equity and justice make it clear that all, particularly those lacking decades of experience and rapport, should have the opportunity to shine rather than be overshadowed.
A decade ago, a rate case would likely involve a small, select group of parties. Today, the landscape now includes a significant increase in the number and variety of parties participating, which results in a far greater number of comments being received. This trend will likely continue and could potentially be accompanied by greater conflict among parties as the number of participants and diversity of positions increase.
Forging A Path Forward
Utility regulators, both individually and collectively, can chart a course toward greater clarity, comprehension, and accessibility for stakeholders and the public. Demystifying our processes by documenting engagement methods and outlining potential outcomes can be a first step in education and establishing uniform expectations for the benefit of stakeholders and regulators alike.
Consistent written guidance for stakeholders will promote harmony, coherence, and uniformity across proceedings. This guidance should address the necessity of compliance with meeting procedures, establish a shared understanding of the regulatory compact, underscore the role of law, and other relevant topics deemed appropriate.
Furthermore, such guidance can outline processes throughout and the impact of specific actions on consumer rates, safety, reliability, and other relevant factors. Through written guidance, publicly posted and easily accessible, we can foster a climate of transparency and comprehension, while laying the groundwork for good behavior and outlining potential consequences for those exhibiting unprofessional conduct or who are disruptive during proceedings.
We need not shy away from the challenges ahead and doing so may raise questions concerning the effectiveness and validity of our processes. In this ever-evolving landscape, doubt and skepticism left unaddressed may erode the very foundations upon which our work rests.
Public Utility Commissions and Boards throughout the country can proactively leverage their authority to ensure that the general public and stakeholders can be empowered with the tools and knowledge to engage effectively for years to come.