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Article Article May 30th, 2017

Finding legitimacy – CPI is starting a global conversation for better outcomes

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What can government do for us? #findinglegitimacy

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Legitimacy relates to Trust, Fairness, Values and Democracy. #findinglegitimacy

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What helps government achieve better outcomes? #findinglegitimacy

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Legitimacy, policy and action are the three key ingredients for making public impact. But in my career in government - and now working on the outside looking in - I have never been all that convinced that legitimacy is well understood or as embedded into government as policy or action. Here's why.

The continuing reaction and shock over Brexit, the referendum result in Turkey and the election victories of Macron and Trump show a growing need for a more meaningful conversation about what government can do for us. But as I reflect on the quality of debates of late around such big issues (the UK's forthcoming election and the future of the EU in particular), it is clear that government is confused about the meaning and importance of legitimacy, and so are we.

And this confusion is having a profound effect on the day-to-day effectiveness of government, while having long-term implications for society. Strong legitimacy is necessary for delivering good policy outcomes and even for delivering peace.

Senior people in government, lifelong party activists, grandparents and even children are asking: “What is our government for, and how can I connect with them - and they with me?”

Of course, at election time many countries find themselves being scrutinised like never before. Governments are asked to explain, cost out, and sell us their ideas - and they are masters of this process. But while some countries operate an election system which gives a party or parties a clear mandate, that does not necessarily mean that they have mastered legitimacy.

What happens in between elections, referendums and changes of leadership can have a huge impact on how we think, on our values and on our behaviours. If our government feels alien to us in between these big moments and tests, then we believe that policy and action will be frustrated - to the point that government policies will fail to achieve their intended outcomes.

Less connected in a connected world - why?

One thing people do seem to agree on is that citizens feel less connected to government than they ever have, and I believe this also impacts on how communities and people connect to one another. What I don't understand is how that can be the case when the opportunity to communicate has never been so easy!

Conversations about legitimacy tend to focus on whether we agree it is right for a government to be in power or not, but at CPI we want to explore some shades of grey. In our quest to find out what legitimacy is and how we can improve it, we want to look instead into what helps to provide the reservoir of support that government needs to achieve better outcomes - public impact.

Finding the answer to how governments can strengthen legitimacy is hard, and in our view there is no one answer. So to help us, we have prepared a discussion paper that lays the foundations for our enquiry. Our research showed that how we feel about legitimacy relates to how we feel about these four elements:

  1. Trust

  2. Fairness

  3. Values

  4. Democracy

So, how can we strengthen legitimacy in government? And how can you help?

Tell us whether you consider these things to be important when you think about legitimacy. Help us to find the examples and stories that show legitimacy in action where you work and live.

We want to hear about what legitimacy looks like to you. Does it flow from government to the frontline and to communities, or back the other way, or not at all? How can government prepare for and leverage new opportunities to communicate with people more effectively?

Who are we talking to?

We want to hear from people all over the world - from government to frontline services and local communities. We will remain open-minded about what we hear, and we will not enter into biased conversations about what is and is not right. We make no assumptions about what type of government achieves legitimacy.

I am making an argument for legitimacy to be a key component of government thinking and operations every day. I don't mean passing this over to a communications or social media expert or relying on trust barometers to tell us, but I mean asking you how government can have the broad support of citizens to act in their interests.

To understand how this works we need to hear from you, because how can we understand what legitimacy is, how it is being challenged and how it can be strengthened without your voice?

I hope you can help us find the answers.


Please get in touch with your thoughts, reactions, case studies, events and conversations.

@CPI_Foundation #findinglegitimacy



  • 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

Written by:

Nadine Smith Founder & CEO, Nadine Smith Consulting
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