After the turbulence and unpredictability of recent years, there are many contemporary accounts of people feeling angry, cynical or ambivalent about government.
While much has been said about the personalities of leaders and the rise of populist parties, what’s less clear is what governments can really do about it. I have been stunned by how little global discussion there has been about addressing this at a whole-of-government, system or even local level.
The good news is that ordinary people do want to talk about this, as our report shows, and they have given us many clues about where to start rebuilding relationships with citizens. The answer is not, as so many have said, for government to simply get better at communications. It is rather to begin to understand and work with people to solve problems, and this will require a new way of thinking and working differently at a national and local level.
Legitimacy needs to be worked on, and worked on again, at all levels
In a cold room in a suburb of south London, 20 young volunteers gathered on a school night to talk about government. In an even colder place in rural Canada, another large group of young people came together, this time from the country’s indigenous communities. And so too did groups of all ages from India, Brussels, Mexico and Singapore, as well as hundreds who engaged with us online to discuss what legitimacy means today.
These supposedly “hard-to-reach” groups assembled of their own free will to tell me what they want from their government in order to build a better, stronger and more trusting relationship. The deal? That I report back what they and other groups like them have to say, because they still think governments can and want to do better. So does CPI, but it is going to take some work.
We met, too, with senior global leaders, many in charge of civil service functions and professional bodies. Some responded that in administrations where there is a high level of trust, legitimacy isn’t really an issue. But you can’t achieve maximum impact without legitimacy, as our Public Impact Fundamentals have shown. Without really understanding people and working with them, long-term performance inevitably suffers.
Many government leaders also said that while the work on securing legitimacy was noble and interesting, the primary task of local and city government was to find solutions, because this is where government comes into closest contact with their citizens. I disagree because the system as a whole has to work better with people, but the systems have not adapted to these new challenges yet.
Ministers are politicians and are accountable first of all to their political parties, while civil servants are accountable to ministers and local government to elected leaders. The frontline have the skills and personal contact with citizens, but bad policies impact on their ability to do a good job – they too often feel undervalued and disconnected from policy processes. It is clear that all levels of government have to work together and empower one another. Some governments are ahead in understanding that a lack of legitimacy is now the biggest threat to government: our case studies show that good work is happening, but that it is piecemeal.
My fear is that without action now, governments risk losing their ability to move with the times or have any influence over us – and who is in charge then?
What people want
It is comforting that in this age of fast communication, fake news and instant comment, what people want is a more human and caring government – no matter where we were, these five things mattered most:
- Work together with people towards a shared vision
- Bring empathy into government
- Build an authentic connection
- Enable the public to scrutinise government
- Value citizens’ voices and respond to them
So, is it possible to be more human in government and embed these behaviours in age-old systems and processes? Yes.
You can start with skills and recruit for diversity, and value people skills as much as policy skills in leaders. You can also start looking at the way you speak and who does your talking for you – and does it even make sense?
You can open the doors of government to the frontline – I remember great listening sessions in my time in the UK government when the prime minister would regularly invite the frontline into Number 10, but it still felt like something that could be dropped if other “more important” things happened. It was not an integral part of the machinery.
You can change the training and development of leaders, the performance management systems and review policy processes to look for unintended bias or tick-box exercises.
You can look at some of the biggest policy challenges we face today and use these as the way to kickstart a new relationship with citizens. Much has been said about the challenge of implementation for governments, but the potential of new technologies – such as AI, driverless vehicles, and drones – shows just how much of a challenge their implementation will be without trust and collaboration.
Ad hoc consultations do not work – people told us they felt inauthentic. Without a system-wide review of how government works at all levels and a focus on these five behaviours, even good ideas will get stuck or have limited success in the long term. CPI has proved this time and again. My fear is that without a focus on working better with people, governments risk losing their ability to move with the times or have any influence over us – and who is in charge then?
The current way of doing government clearly isn’t working – many are losing interest in it or have even given up altogether. Those we spoke to, however, have thankfully not given up. They spoke with passion of their countries’ futures, so let’s do something before they too give up. Apathy can lead to violence and hate, so let’s not allow this to escalate any further. Let’s take responsibility in all we do in government to think of people and start now – after all, you joined government because you cared, right?
This ‘Finding a more human government’ report was launched at the OECD global anti-corruption and integrity forum #OECDIntegrity
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