We took the #FindingLegitimacy conversation to Brussels to hear from representatives and public servants from the Belgian authorities, the European Commission and campaign groups about what legitimacy means today.
The conversation covered the need for governments to focus on presenting a clearer narrative to the public at large about its role and what it is doing to add value and therefore remain relevant. Three main themes emerged for us that will continue to shape our discussion of this topic going forwards:
- Legitimacy is about outcomes as well as processes
Attendees agreed that legitimacy is about what governments achieve, as well as the way and means through which they achieve these outcomes. We also heard about the need for government to be transparent and open about how decisions are made. There is no topic of conversation that government should not have with people, however hard.
- Legitimacy is about representation and diversity
We also talked about representation and diversity. When do we, as civil society, feel that we are represented by those who we elect? What is the role of diversity in modern politics, and how can we ensure that diversity is not just about meeting quota targets? To some extent, representation is about trying to mirror society, we heard. A diverse police force, for example, is perceived to be much more legitimate than one that is representing only a subset of the population.
- Legitimacy is about relationships
Most importantly though, we heard that legitimacy is about overcoming the distance and disconnect between governments – including the EU – and citizens. How can a team of policy makers who have never been employees think about employee rights? Can politicians who have spent their entire careers in politics really understand what young people today are most concerned about without ever speaking to them? Can the growing feeling of being disconnected be overcome by political experience, measure in the number of years in the system, or is it a question of being able to understand the public? It is the latter, most attendees agreed: politicians and civil servants today, they need to get out into the field, and without any buzz, spend a day living the lives of the people in their constituencies. It is not about pretending to understand, it is truly about putting oneself into someone else’s shoes and judging only after experiencing.
We need to improve and re-define how government and citizens can work together, and jointly address challenges related to race, social cohesion and community engagement. Only then, we heard, is government able to strengthen legitimacy.
This conversation is the latest in a series of global conversations that CPI has organised as part of our #FindingLegitimacy project since we began a few months ago and in partnership with local Legitimacy Champions.