Never before have European citizens enjoyed so many opportunities to be consulted and to participate in public policy. In most countries, government today is more accessible, inclusive and transparent than it has been in the past. Public involvement is particularly intensive in procedures like construction and planning permits or in environmental and social impact assessments. Many European countries have increased direct democracy, or devolved decision-making to the regional or municipal level where it is closer to citizens. In addition, government and business today are bound by more and more regulations enforcing social and environmental priorities as well as consultation with civil society, which is an important reality that developers and private investors need to adapt to. One might think this has increased citizens’ trust in their institutions and in public decision making.
However, the opposite seems to be true. Despite increased transparency and citizens’ involvement, the trust of those same citizens in government and business is in decline across Europe, as evidenced by a multitude of studies, polls and statistics. This is a serious challenge. Loss of confidence in government and business translates into a loss of credibility of those very institutions. Credibility is the very basis for their legitimacy, it is their currency – and the less valuable a currency, the weaker its holder.
A humbling experience
Until June 2013, Sebastian Sass was head of communications and spokesperson at the South Stream Offshore Pipeline. Before that, he worked as head of EU Representation and spokesperson at the Nord Stream Pipeline which is chaired by Germany’s ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He has established a specialised consultancy in Switzerland for public relations and government affairs that advises clients across Europe on the implementation of infrastructure developments and other large-scale projects facing controversy in media and politics.