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The role of actors in the policy design process: introducing design coalitions to explain policy output

Abstract

Despite a renaissance of policy design thinking in public policy literature and a renewed interest in agency in the policy process literature, agency in the policy design process has, so far, not received systematic attention. Understanding the agency at play when designing policy, however, is crucial for better comprehension of policy design choices and variation in policy design across cases. Here, we build on the hierarchical structure of design elements that constitute each policy and analyse how actors position themselves during a policy design process in relation to individual design elements. Our aim is to establish different actors’ roles in shaping the policy output in an inductive, single-case study using the empirical case of the Swiss renewable energy feed-in tariff. Notably, we find agency in the form of coalitions which emerge around particular design elements. Based on our representative analysis, we derive the generalisable concept of design coalitions that we define as relational structures of actors who gather around and advocate for specific policy design elements during the policy design process. Policy design coalitions are dynamic throughout the design process and strategic and constitute the determinants in translating policy problems into final policy designs during policy designing. Our approach allows us to shed light on the role of agency in the policy design process in general.

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Notes

  1. In the present case, the government, and federal ministries other than the energy office did not participate, or only marginally participated, in making the new RE-FiT, as indicated by the documents of the interdepartmental consultation process. This adds to the transparency of the case since the role of other actors external to the government and administration was, thus, more important.

  2. The energy office, officially called Swiss Federal Office of Energy, is the responsible authority for questions around energy supply and energy use at the national level and a subordinate agency of the Swiss Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications.

  3. Resolution on energy use (Energienutzungsbeschluss/Arrêté sur l’énergie), SR 730.0, AS 1991 1018.

  4. The feed-in tariff was implemented in Art. 7, 7a, 7b, Law on energy (Energiegesetz vom 26. Juni 1998/Loi du 26 juin 1998 sur l’énergie), SR 730.0, AS 2008 775.

  5. Even though Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is heavily integrated in the European electricity market. Thus, to keep access to the electricity markets of its neighbouring countries, it is necessary for Switzerland to comply with EU legislation.

  6. In our study, we focus on how the design of the feed-in tariff came about and, more specifically, how and why these design elements were decided upon. The specific tariffs paid for electricity generation from the various RE technologies, as well as the conditions for receiving these tariffs, were formulated by the energy office and decided upon by the government and are, together with later amendments of the feed-in tariff, out of this study’s scope.

  7. Note that, even though the protocols of the energy committee meetings are available for researchers, they are confidential. For this reason, it is prohibited to use quotes or name participants (or their party affiliations) from the meetings. In the following, we thus use data from the committee meeting protocols only as aggregated results.

  8. Smaller parties and parliamentarians without party affiliation are omitted from this study.

  9. In Switzerland, the first and second chambers of parliament are called the National Council and the Council of States, respectively.

  10. A list of the actor acronyms and the organisations they include is found in Table 4.

  11. Note that, with roughly 60% large hydro and 40% nuclear, Switzerland’s electricity mix is historically largely CO2 emissions-free. For this reason, climate change mitigation has not featured prominently in this debate.

  12. For instance, sustainable energy provision was an important goal for the Green Party and, to a smaller extent, for actors such as environmental associations, cities and municipalities and RE associations. It was only of minor importance to other actors, such as the Centre Party and the Far-Right Party (who, in turn, highly valued industrial competitiveness) and large utilities for whom energy security was the major goal.

  13. The latter stems from the fact that implementing the feed-in tariff was connected to the proposal of liberalising the electricity market, against which various actors—including the Left and Green Parties, the labour unions, the farmers and the RE, environmental and consumer associations—threatened to force a public referendum in case comprehensive support for RE technologies was refused. Hence, actors in favour of a liberalised electricity market, such as the government, the Centre and Free-Market Parties and the large utilities, supported a RE policy to secure liberalisation.

  14. In the case of technology selection, the interests of the different actors varied greatly. Some actors, such as the Far-Right Party, the large utilities and the cantons, favoured technology selection to specifically exclude some technologies from the scheme. Conversely, other actors favoured technology selection to give every technology the chance to be deployed and compete with other technologies.

  15. The Swiss cantons are the subnational administrative divisions.

  16. The former head of the energy office stated, “we were relatively open to introduce [an RE support instrument], but it was completely unclear which one. Therefore, we just offered a selection [of instruments] for the parliament to decide” (Interviewee 5 in Table 2).

  17. A Far-Right parliamentarian stated at the beginning of the debate, “[i]f against expectation, [the voluntary quotas] do not receive a majority, we will […] take the freedom to pivot to one of the other proposed instruments. Though I think that support of the more expensive [feed-in tariff] is out of the question for us”—Jürg Stahl, AB 2005 N 1091/BO 2005 N 1091.

  18. Besides industrial competitiveness, farmers and some businesses were also particularly interested in decentralising electricity production, while the French-speaking areas, and thus their parliamentarians, are traditionally critical of nuclear power and saw RE technologies as a means to replace it. The traditional scepticism of the French-speaking areas against nuclear power has three origins. First, a French nuclear power plant, considered unsafe, is located near the Swiss border. Second, there were plans to build a permanent nuclear waste storage in the French-speaking canton of Vaud, which raised the opposition of its population against nuclear power in general. Third, no Swiss nuclear power plant is located in the French-speaking areas and hence no jobs or income are dependent on it.

  19. A Free-Market parliamentarian and representative of a business association stated during the debate, “[in] our targets, we agree as never before that the renewable energies need to be sustainably supported. […] I am supportive because not only know-how will be developed in our country but also because innovation and value creation will stay in Switzerland. […] I am supportive because, thanks to decentralised production, structurally weak regions will profit. […] Since we agree on the goal, the only remaining question is which instrument will sustainably and promptly yield outcome […] [I support the feed-in tariff] because this instrument is experienced and successful”—Werner Messmer, AB 2005 N 1090, 1091/BO 2005 N 1090,1091.

  20. The details of the specific policy settings and instrument calibrations at low-level abstraction were revised several times in the course of the policy design process (see “Design elements and sequence of design process” section and Fig. 11) and were one reason why the policy draft shuttled repeatedly between the two parliamentary chambers.44 It was, however, not the main reason why the two chambers took so long to agree on a final policy proposition. The main points of disagreement lay in the simultaneously debated measures to increase energy efficiency, as well as the draft on the electricity market liberalisation, which together formed one policy draft.

  21. An important general instrument logic of all these actors was cost minimisation. A Centre parliamentarian stated during the debate, “we should make sure that the money is used to generate optimum outcome. Optimum outcome is achieved when as much energy as possible is produced from renewable sources at the smallest possible cost. […] We have to make sure that solar PV does not take too much from the scarcely available resources”—Carlo Schmid-Sutter, AB 2006 S 879/BO 2006 E 879.

  22. The representative of an RE association stated, “we made small flexible solar PV panels that […] we distributed amongst the parliamentarians saying that Switzerland had know-how in industrial solar PV and that they had to offer a market if they wanted them to stay in Switzerland” (Interviewee 16 in Table 2).

  23. The representative of an environmental association stated, “[we] offered a compromise proposal and brought it into the discussions but it did not advance at first. […] For us, the most important was not to get the entire feed-in tariff rejected again, or at least that it was not challenged” (Interviewee 18 in Table 2).

  24. The president of the solar PV association and Free-Market parliamentarian stated, “we were afraid that our opponents would win the palm and that we would be left with nothing. But [with the compromise], we knew that we had the foot in the door. Even though it was little, we could work with it. So we were satisfied” (Interviewee 2 in Table 2).

  25. A Left-party parliamentarian stated, “we told them, “You do not take any risk […]. We will not be able to build a lot of installations if the price is high […]”. We concluded the deal this way and the prices dropped by [a lot]. During the debate, the price of rooftop solar PV was at 1 CHF/kWh. Now, we are at 0.1 CHF/kWh for a large installation” (Interviewee 3 in Table 2).

  26. An interviewee from the Free-Market Party stated, “[this was] a proposition by the industry association because they felt that the battle was lost. […] The most important thing for them was not to have to pay the additional costs. In the beginning, they were certain to be able to overthrow the feed-in tariff. When they saw it advancing nonetheless, they came forward with this proposal. […] It was their last resort” (Interviewee 2 in Table 2).

  27. The representative of an environmental association stated, “[we] did not really participate in these discussions anymore. […] We were not so close to these topics because of limited resources” (Interviewee 18 in Table 2).

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Project number: PYAPP1-166905) and the Swiss Innovation Agency Innosuisse through the Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research—Heat and Electricity Storage (SCCER HaE) under contract number 1155000153. We would like to thank all interview partners for sharing their valuable insights, the administrative personnel at the Swiss Federal Office of Energy and the parliamentary services for their support in acquiring all the necessary documents, as well as various participants at ERSS, ICPP 3, and IWPP1 and the team of the Energy Politics Group at ETH Zurich for valuable input and feedback to this study.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Fig. 11, Tables 1, 2, 3, 4.

Fig. 11
figure 11

Simplified process of design element decisions taken in the empirical case. The sequential chart is read from left to right. The grey bars represent the alternatives debated for each design element, and the green bars represent the final design element, as summarised in Fig. 2. The dotted lines display the alternatives available for each decision, and the diamonds represent which alternative is chosen. Note that committee decisions are not binding and must be decided again by the plenum

Table 1 National-level policymaking process in Switzerland according to Sciarini (2006)
Table 2 Summary of interview partners
Table 3 List of coded design elements
Table 4 List of coded actors and the actors included therein

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Haelg, L., Sewerin, S. & Schmidt, T.S. The role of actors in the policy design process: introducing design coalitions to explain policy output. Policy Sci 53, 309–347 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-019-09365-z

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-019-09365-z

Keywords

  • Policy design
  • Agency
  • Design elements
  • Sequencing
  • Actor coalitions
  • Energy policy