Governments face no shortage of tough questions. But the toughest of all relate to their legitimacy – how to think about it, how to solve it, how to understand it and how to strengthen it. This is the conversation I am having, however, here in Singapore with hundreds of government leaders and officials gathering this week on the search for the answer that could help bring citizens closer to them and help secure long-term stability to their countries. But is there one answer?
At the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) we bring together the best and the brightest minds to look at how government can achieve public impact – better outcomes for citizens – and this is the conversation people most dislike. It is emotional, personal, subjective and highly charged – and government, in my experience, does not like doing emotion.
One of the problems is that legitimacy is so difficult to define and harder to work out how well you are doing too. There’s no measure or dial that demonstrates how good we are at securing it overall. It might be, for example, a function of how much economic security the government provides, as well as how much participation it enables. But for another country, it may be rooted in institutions, codes of conduct and history. It may be that it is simply about making pledges and sticking to them, especially at an uncertain time.
Everyone has their own lens through which they see legitimacy and it is always changing, that’s why CPI is exploring what legitimacy means around the world in order to learn what is working and why and to help government understand what might work for them when.
I believe that legitimacy requires continuous care and attention and perhaps a deeper understanding of the cultural behaviours of government that prevent legitimacy becoming stronger. At CPI we can show where methods and processes can help to build legitimacy but you first need a sustainable foundation upon which to create better conversations and engagement or who exactly are you listening to? Are they participating and are they telling you how they really feel and do you understand what they are saying?
It’s an all of government challenge
Legitimacy is hard to define but for us, it is the broad reservoir of support that a government needs to be able to achieve better outcomes for people. In our Public Impact fundamentals, legitimacy is up in lights with policy and action but is often the least understood.
We’re not talking about whether a government has a mandate or, for example, whether President Trump is popular with all Americans. Instead, we’re talking about the whole system, the policy process, and the people representing government on the frontlines. Everyone has a role to play and their actions can help to build or weaken legitimacy.
At CPI, we’re particularly interested in the connection between citizens and government and public services and how this can be improved. It’s not just down to processes but their actual relationship. Processes can help build trust and relationships but even with high levels of trust today, you are not far off low levels tomorrow and so relationships from the top to bottom of government are critical.
Pockets of good practice cannot, therefore, be enough. We also need a change in mindset from governments to be open to a new kind of relationship, and to form those with people it otherwise would not. Shocks can come from anywhere at any time. Just look at the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London – local government had the ability to act and show it knew what victims needed, but it did not know how to communicate, empathise or demonstrate emotion and victims say it did not listen, even when people demanded it, this then became a central government problem too. Trust has all but eroded in the whole government’s ability to help those most in need, whoever in the chain is to blame.
In the last ten years, we’ve seen governments all over the world – from the UK to Kenya, Mexico to Singapore – push hard on transparency as an answer. Governments have invested big in opening up: they’ve expanded freedom of information laws; they’ve put much more information on the internet about who they are and what they’re doing; and they’ve opened hundreds of thousands of datasets as open data.
All of this openness was meant to increase public trust in government – but it hasn’t. Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer asks people around the world how they feel about the big institutions in their country. In 2017, only 41% of people said that they trust the government to do what is right. And that figure is falling.
So what can be done? At CPI we think that engagement, trust and political commitment matter wherever you are but the cultural and social norms differ from place to place. Legitimacy might depend on the proper representation of minorities, of women, young people and different classes of people in government too. Perhaps the best way to ensure this is through very direct intervention. In Canada, they are pushing for reforms to old systems that were unintentionally blocking out the voice of minorities, whereas in the UK political parties have explored all-women shortlists for MPs.
Technology as a fix
Technology offers many new possibilities for governments to work with citizens on big problems – but it also makes things harder. People see the pace of growth in technology as quite scary – especially when it means that their jobs are changing or under threat or that the world’s borders no longer exist. There are no easy solutions to this and it’s hard for governments to respond to. Technology also increases people’s expectations. If you can tell
Technology also increases people’s expectations. If you can tell government what you want, can you tell government what you don’t want and how you feel too? Even the things that the media and political correctness bat away as unacceptable views? Because eventually those feelings will surface – technology and social media allows that to happen faster now and young people are very good at expressing their feelings first, and they are demanding more from government than the usual spoon-fed narratives.
We want to collect examples from around the world of where people have seen technology really working to improve legitimacy – especially engagement. For example, in Taiwan chatbots are used to host and analyse widespread policy conversations that set the agenda for government actions, such as regulating Uber and creating new alcohol laws.
Lower tech examples include those in Tanzania and Mexico, which are both experimenting with sending SMS messages to pregnant mothers, with advice tailored to where they’re at in their pregnancy, and letting women ask questions over SMS. Everyone is at different points in their journey so must choose their tool wisely. But would a chatbot be able to show empathy when it is needed? Where in government does empathy come from to ensure those messages resonate?
How is Malaysia engaging the views of 1.6 million young people about its 2050 Transformation Plan? Listen to Lokman Hakim Bin Ali, secretary general, Ministry of Youth and Sports, to find out.
Can government do emotion?
With the perfect process and system, are governments really able to hear what citizens are telling them? Can they predict shocks and upsets? Google can predict outbreaks of flu so why can’t we use technology not just to do consultations but to listen better and target people with what they need, instead of one size fits all messages that many citizens have grown tired of and wised up to?
Services that respond to your needs when you need them, before you know you need them – this should be possible. But also ask, what is the thing that most binds us as a society together and is that a sustainable foundation upon which we can bring new processes for conversations into? Can our institutions and civil services really embrace the new or are they part of the so-called legitimacy crisis? You may have the latest gadget or tool, but can you really listen and engage with it and be believed to be doing so too?
That is the real challenge and young people today, in particular, are pushing hard to make engagement more meaningful. This is no one tool solution but a continuous journey of improvement.
These are big issues and that is are why we are kicking off a global conversation. Please read our discussion paper; email us, send a tweet using #FindingLegitimacy and host a conversation – we can send you some ideas about how to bring people together to talk about this and we’d love to share what you come up with.
Listen to Nadine Smith’s keynote speech to our Impact and Legitimacy Focus Group at Innovation Labs World, Singapore.
- Finding legitimacy – CPI is starting a global conversation for better outcomes. Nadine Smith introduces a new research programme about legitimacy from the Centre for Public Impact.
- If no news is good news, what is fake news? With fake news increasingly part of the public discourse, Nadine Smith examines how governments can start to strengthen its own credibility rating.
- Public impact in a post-truth world. Governments have struggled for years to understand that people’s perceptions of life are very often their reality, says Adrian Brown, who suggests that “post-truth” can simply mean “truth” from a different vantage point
- Why we shouldn’t panic over post-truth. Nadine Smith explains why policymakers should understand how to adapt messages so that people feel connected to them.
- In conversation with… Ben Page. Ben Page, chief executive of leading market research company Ipsos MORI, sits down with CPI’s executive director, Adrian Brown, to discuss the tumultuous events of 2016, and the causes and impact of greater unpredictability and disruption on the political scene.
- Recognising and renewing governments’ legitimacy. Preserving their legitimacy in such a fast-changing world should be a priority for governments the world over, says Maryantonett Flumian.
- Building trust and legitimacy through innovation in Mexico. Mexico’s Director of Public Innovation, Enrique Zapata, talks legitimacy, impact and improved women’s health.