12 Top Tips: How governments can find their legitimacy

Governments are under increasing pressure to understand and respond quickly to people’s needs and to their rapidly changing lives and expectations. Digital has offered a great way to respond to this at a service level but is only part of the answer when it comes to mending and building relationships with people.

Our Finding Legitimacy listening project found that despite great advances in IT and digital and now AI, people want to understand and get to know their governments better, how they work, who runs them and how they can collaborate with them to make things work better. Without this, further advances, however good, may stall.

We have explored what can be done today to build better relationships from increasing diversity at all levels of government so that it better represents the people it serves to building empathy into all training and leadership programmes. Our key behaviours for strengthened legitimacy help governments think of actions they can take at all levels of government.  Many talk about trust in government being low but I would argue trust in people from governments is as low.

To solve problems and understand the role and limitations of government, too, will require a new way of thinking and working and a new level of trust and understanding of people

We have been privileged to speak to people from around the world, young and old, from both inside and outside of government, during the course of our research. Have you heard what they are saying yet?

Here, we present 12 Top Tips from experts about how governments can find their legitimacy.

1.  Citizen engagement starts with understanding people’s needs

Tommi Laitio, executive director, culture and leisure, City of Helsinki

“Engagement means more than thinking in averages; it requires acknowledging citizens as individuals with different interests, skills, needs and ambitions. There are three founding principles for engagement. Firstly, use the experience and expertise of the community; secondly, increase people’s ability to live a free life and make choices; and thirdly, make participation more equal across the city in terms of access as well as empowering vulnerable groups.”

2. Governments should care – but it’s a two way street with the public

Gina Miller, activist, campaigner and business leader

“This is absolutely their job. If you put yourself up as a politician, you are almost saying ‘I’m a parent of the nation’. You will be hated some days, you’ll be loved other days, but that’s what you have opted to do – you decided to be a parent of the nation. But the public also have to do their part – it’s a partnership between those in power and the people; it’s a two-way relationship. Too often it is people in power doing things to the people.”

3. Politicians need to start by being honest

Ira Campbell, managing director of a youth centre in Brixton, London

“Young people hear a lot of politicians talking and talking but then nothing ever seems to happen. But they just need to start being honest – if something can’t happen then sit down with them and explain why that is the case. But we don’t even get those connections. This means that for the young people I work with, ‘legitimacy’ isn’t even a real word. It has no meaning or relevance. They just see other people getting money or looking after their own.”

4. Involve the citizen’s voice in decision-making

Claudia Chwalisz, policy analyst, OECD

“Beyond the obvious democratic benefit, involving citizens in big policy decisions and giving them the time to become informed before they give their recommendations leads to more legitimate and effective policies. When given the opportunity to play an important role in shaping policies that affect their lives, people take it seriously and have proved time and again to be competent.”

5. Competence, fairness, and caring are all critical to legitimacy

Amanda Greene, lecturer in political philosophy, University College London

“There must be positive perceptions of government along three distinct dimensions. Firstly, the dimension of competence: government must be seen as capable and effective in carrying out its activities. Secondly, the dimension of fairness: government must be seen as treating all people equally and impartially, without favoritism or discrimination. And thirdly, the dimension of human concern and personal connectedness: government must be seen to be sincerely caring about each person’s welfare.”

6. Re-enfranchise the public

Constanza Gomez Mont, co-founder, and director, and Claudia Del Pozo project co-ordinator, PIDES

“Citizens want to participate, but in the current environment they feel that it is ‘a search without knowing what to look for’. Without knowing how decisions are taken or who the decision-makers are, and without knowing how decisions are implemented or to what end, citizens feel undervalued and disenfranchised. They do not believe that government is listening to their concerns.”

7. Introduce citizens’ juries

Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics, chairman of the Open Knowledge Foundation Australia

“These should ultimately become a core component of our constitution in a deliberative, detoxified democracy. Until then, they’d be an incredibly effective way of putting pressure on the existing system from the outside. If we could find some philanthropists to get them going, I think they’d be a fantastically cheap investment in another, better future.”

8. Government has to learn from citizens

Magdalena Kuemkel, programme manager, Centre for Public Impact

“Our research shows that the relationship between governments and citizens is at breaking point. Change is needed now and governments should not be waiting for the next crisis to take action. We, at CPI, believe that it is possible to build legitimacy, and we found examples of this all over the world, often in places that we didn’t expect. There is a lot that governments can learn from citizens – and from one another – about how to build better relationships, and who within the machinery of government should take a leading role in this initiative.”

9.  Ensure a focus on both processes and outcomes 

Aparajita Bharti, co-founder, Young Leaders for Active Citizenship, India

“Trust is not just built by the actions of political leaders at the highest levels of government but also by frontline service providers by giving clarity of direction to people in their day-to-day lives.”

10. In Canada, reconciliation and legitimacy will only happen with a ‘total restart’ 

Rhonda Moore, policy lead, Public Policy Forum

“True reconciliation for Indigenous people will not happen within the parameters of a Westminster system where the Crown continues to hold all the power and First Nations people have none. True reconciliation will require a total restart; recognising the very different governance systems of all First Nations, not just the one imposed upon them.”

11. Embrace empathy

Leonardo Quattruci, policy assistant to the director-general, European Political Strategy Centre

“Governments need to develop empathy. Perhaps policymakers should take short internships with employers when they draft employment regulation to understand what constraints and everyday hassles they face. Alternatively, citizens could spend a day with decision-makers to understand their difficulties in balancing the principles of legitimacy.”

12. Three priorities in Lebanon: transparency, citizen-centricity, and digitalisation 

Sarah-Jane Noujeim, junior associate, The Boston Consulting Group

“Policymakers have a lot to prove in order to re-establish trust and bridge the gap between themselves and the Lebanese people. First, they need to increase government transparency. Second, they need to commit to finding solutions that address citizens’ concerns and improve the local economy. And finally they need to show that they are capable of leading a nation in the age of digital revolution by demonstrating an understanding of the impact of digitisation and open data on the role of government.”

What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project