Why government legitimacy matters in North America

Too many problems

In August 2020 – the same month when a series of lightning strikes started hundreds of fires on the west coast – only 1% of Americans said the environment was the most important problem facing the country according to a monthly Gallup poll. In a year marked by “epic crises”, it is not surprising that our relationship with our planet did not top the list for many.

The quantity of urgent problems facing our country, combined with the severity of constraints facing our public institutions, make it very difficult for governments to make decisions.

With shrinking tax revenues, how can governments allocate limited resources? With literal and figurative fires taking place in so many communities, how can governments equitably prioritize? With mounting distrust and anxiety, how can governments openly collaborate with residents to understand what matters most to them?

Introducing government legitimacy

Here at the Centre for Public Impact in North America, we do not claim to have the answers, but we are committed to openly sharing what we learn. From our experiences working closely with governments across the country, we firmly believe that one issue, which is not mentioned in the Gallup poll of 47 issues, is deeply related to all of the urgent issues facing our country right now: government legitimacy.

We define government legitimacy as the relationship between government and the people it serves. When this relationship is strong, government and people can work together effectively  to address problems. But too often, we have seen this relationship weakened in America: a lack of faith in government makes it harder for government to effectively deliver results that matter to people. Government legitimacy and effectiveness are interdependent issues that can lead to a virtuous or vicious cycle, and in 2020, we have seen the vicious side more often than not. 


Take for example the issue that Americans voted as the most important in nearly every month since April: COVID-19. While there are many complex factors contributing to effective response, our international research indicates that governments that are sharing power directly with people and cultivating trusting relationships have been more effective at keeping their residents healthy and safe. Countries with high levels of trust in government (a proxy measure for legitimacy), such as Canada, India, and China according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, have experienced lower incidence rates per capita (.38%, .37% and .01% respectively). In the United States, however, where only 17% of people say they can trust the federal government to do the right thing, we have among the highest per capita incident rate of any nation at 2.01%, representing over 6.6M of Americans who have been diagnosed with the disease. 

While there are many contributing factors, the data, combined with our experiences working with governments and communities, leads us to believe that trusting relationships play a large role. As the OECD has argued: “During all stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, including containment, mitigation and recovery, trust in public institutions is vital for governments’ ability to respond rapidly and to secure citizen support.” 

Why government legitimacy

Our hunch is that this trend is not unique to COVID-19. While a range of experiences and capabilities are required to meet the complex challenges of our time, we want to support governments in becoming better at nurturing trusting relationships, understanding cultural and historical context, and sympathizing with the perspectives of those least heard.

We believe that investing in these types of ‘soft things’ will lead to tangible impact on the issues that matter most to people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and historically disenfranchised. 

The complex issues Americans care about – systemic racism, climate change, public safety and health – are interconnected and influenced by a wide range of factors. While some of this may feel beyond government’s control, our hypothesis is that legitimacy is both 1) squarely within government’s sphere of influence, and 2) likely to have broad and deep impact. 

This unique combination makes it an ideal priority for our team, where we seek to reimagine government so that it works better for everyone. We are hopeful that supporting American governments in building legitimacy will equip them to better address the urgent issues they face today head on, while laying the foundation for a better system in the long-term.

What we are learning

Already, in the months we have spent supporting governments in their COVID-19 response, we have learned a lot about the ways governments can build relationships with those they serve. Three emerging lessons, building on our learnings from 2019, we wanted to share include:

1. Racial justice must be at the center of government’s mindsets and actions because racism was (and still is implicitly or explicitly) at the center of many broken relationships.

We have seen increasing recognition from governments at all levels that historical and existing policies and actions disenfranchise BIPOC. The deeply ingrained systemic racism inflicting this nation is not a political issue. It is a human one.

To address it requires governments to be humble, apologetic, and open about their role in contributing to the problem, honestly reckoning with past and current failures. It requires dedicated education to better understand how BIPOC communities have experienced government’s power. It requires a commitment to creating a more inclusive employment process that recruits and supports government staff that are representative of the communities they serve. It requires a reimagining of our capitalist system to create a more inclusive and just economy. And it requires a different way of listening and nurturing relationships with BIPOC that extends beyond the traditional engagement methods.

2. Strengthening relationships between and among communities and governments in a virtual world is generating actionable ideas that lead to impact

When we say “community” we mean a group of people who share a common characteristic (e.g., neighborhood, race, experience).

Our research indicates that the stronger bonds are within and across communities and government, the better we will be able to work together to address complex challenges.

As part of our role as the Secretariat for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Covid-19 Testing Solutions Group, we are learning and sharing how governments can center communities in their Covid-19 response. Every two weeks, we virtually convene public officials from 27 cities, states, and tribal nations to share lessons learned around how to scale up testing, tracing, and tracking in their communities as a pathway to safe and equitable economic recovery. Public officials in places like New Orleans, for example, shared how they worked with local volunteers and professionals to build trust and overcome barriers to testing in historically under-served communities. These lessons shared by peers are proving to be essential as public officials work towards community-oriented and inclusive responses to Covid-19.

3. Traditional forms of “resident engagement” can do more to harm than heal the relationship between government and its people

A negative experience with some form of government is a contributing factor for the many Americans who have lost faith in our public institutions. Typical “consultation” exercises that do more to tick a box than to gain input and consent leave residents feeling disillusioned. Governments must move beyond the transactional and instead consider the ways they can intentionally share power with those most impacted by the problems they seek to address.

As our friend Melissa Bridges, the Performance & Innovation Coordinator in Little Rock, noted, this is no easy task in the middle of a pandemic: “at a time when demand for government services had never been higher, we here in Little Rock’s city government had to figure out how to remain accessible for residents overwhelmed by the global pandemic rocking our community.” The City of Little Rock is one of many trialing different approaches and learning from failure to be open and accessible to all residents.

Will you help us build government legitimacy in North America?

In the coming weeks, we will be continuing to share what we are learning from our experiences on issues of government legitimacy, from the upcoming election to effective methods of cultivating relationships to opportunities for our nation to learn and improve.

We are actively seeking partners to join us on this journey and help test our hypothesis: that intentionally focusing on government legitimacy will address the urgent short and long-term problems facing this country. We are looking for governments, community groups, funders, or other forms of change agents who share the following with our team:

  • A desire to build legitimacy in their community
  • A commitment to sharing power with those most impacted by complex problems
  • An open and learning-oriented mindset 

If this sounds like you, do not hesitate to reach out! While the magnitude of the problems our nation faces can feel daunting, we believe that with strengthened relationships and a shared sense of purpose, Americans are up for the task.