Policy Sciences

, 42:341 | Cite as

Policy design without democracy? Making democratic sense of transition management



This article explores the complex relationship between democracy and long-term policy design for sustainability. At one extreme, democracy can be framed as problematic for policy planning because of the myopia fostered by some democratic institutions, such as regular elections. Alternatively, democracy can be seen as an ally of long-term policy design to the extent that it can generate public legitimacy and accountability, and potentially foster more equitable and just outcomes. Recent debates on how to ‘manage’ policy transitions to sustainability have been curiously silent on democratic matters, despite their potential implications for democracy. To explore what democracy might mean for transition management this article considers empirically how actors engaged in the Dutch Energy Transition Program make democratic sense of their activities. The analysis finds that in practice transition policies promote implicit narratives or democratic storylines on how reforms should be developed, who should participate in these, and how they should be legitimised and accountable to the public. The dominant narrative, which espouses elite theory and technocracy, privileges epistemic matters over democratic considerations. Other democratic storylines draw on representative democracy and interest group pluralism. The paper considers some possible ways to foster more productive interfaces between the governance structures of transition management, and the polycentric context of contemporary democratic systems.


Long-term policy design Sustainability Energy Democracy Transition management Legitimacy Participation Network governance Representative Accountability 



For their insights and suggestions the author would like to thank John Grin, Jan-Peter Voß and Adrian Smith, as well as two anonymous reviewers. This paper has also benefited from the comments of participants at the International Workshop: Politics and Governance in Sustainable Socio-Technical Transitions held 19–21 September 2007, at Schloss Blankensee (Berlin).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Crawford School of Economics and Government, ANU College of Asia & the PacificThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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