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January 11th, 2018
Leonardo Quattruci Policy Assistant to the Director-General of the European Political Strategy Centre

Finding Legitimacy in Brussels and beyond

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In recent years, the balance of legitimacy appears to have shifted away from the state, says @leoquattruci #FindingLegitimacy

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Adaptability of outcomes, fairness of process and comprehensive representation can all help with #FindingLegitimacy

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Legitimacy changes over time, so governments need new principles and methods for this old pursuit #FindingLegitimacy

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Legitimacy: every institution seeks it, new actors claim it, and leaders invoke it. Yet, trust in public institutions in a large number of Western liberal democracies is down, while disenfranchisement is up.

“You recognise [legitimacy] when you see it” - said one of the public, private and civic leaders who took part in our recent #FindingLegitimacy event in Brussels. What did we find out?

Legitimacy reloaded

Legitimacy is neither a static nor a stable concept. Traditionally, public institutions played a mediating role between balancing individuals' interests and the pursuit of society's common objectives. But in recent years, the balance of legitimacy appears to have shifted away from mere state authority.

Elected governments now compete for citizens' consensus with a growing number of political formations, which run for or against a narrow set of issues that call for little compromise. And open data and greater transparency mean that outsiders are often at least as well-informed as insiders on the performance of public-sector systems.

Public services, too, are undergoing a profound change. Gone are the days where only government was involved - an increasing number of services are now being delivered by the private sector which often offers more seamless and customised solutions. And new technologies are also making citizens producers of the services they consume - from eHealth to disintermediated financial transactions through blockchain.

In this fast-evolving environment, how can governments find renewed legitimacy? Three principles can guide this pursuit.

  1. Acceptability of outcomes

“When you break down trust [in government], higher trust correlates with higher education and income” - a participant explained. According to this logic, outcomes such as a government's effectiveness in guaranteeing equal access to basic education and health, are the main source of legitimacy. Once everyone is ensured minimum standards of well being, then policy choices that provide “a lot” to one group may be more acceptable even to those who only get “enough”.

But is this enough? After all, there are high levels of distrust in many European governments - despite them providing relatively good public services. It is also worth questioning who establishes which outcomes are acceptable and which are not. Acceptability of outcomes alone does not prevent results to be driven by illegitimate means, such as the use of coercion, the restriction of liberties or infringements upon the rule of law.

  1. Fairness of process

“A legitimate government is one when people can accept outcomes because the process has been fair.” It is through deliberation that stakeholders find reasons to support decisions, even when they are not their first best. Remember that reality is more complex than headlines, and involving people in setting collective objectives may grant governments the benefit of the doubt when things do not go as expected (sometimes for legitimate reasons). Growth targets can be missed due to the costs of natural disasters, even if economic policy has worked, for instance.

“There is a pot of trust people need to place somewhere”, and they will probably invest it in the questions and relationships they understand best and feel ownership of. “When an entity you don't trust becomes real to you, then trust gets built up in a meaningful way” - and that entity then becomes legitimate. This is why outcomes matter, but “relationships are crucial to legitimacy”. Fairness of process can therefore make policies and their outcomes more acceptable to more citizens.

Yet, when is a process “fair”? And according to whose criteria? There is a view of legitimacy that sees “non-dominance” by a group as one of its preconditions: If a process is fair only for the few, it is possibly unfair for the whole.

  1. Comprehensive representation

Today, growing diversity in society makes comprehensive representation a greater source of legitimacy. When the police force is diverse in a city with more than 100 nationalities, for instance, law enforcement is perceived as more legitimate - explained a participant drawing from direct experience.

When more people can follow political developments and mobilise by spreading viral messages on social media, “government institutions have to be the mirror of the public.” Comprehensive representation is therefore not just a question of institutional legitimacy; it is a matter of effective actions: citizens will combat rather than comply with actions carried out by authorities they deem unrepresentative.

Towards a new style of government

“Adaptability of outcomes,” “fairness of process” and “comprehensive representation” are guiding principles. They have no expectation to be accurate measures of legitimacy, since the notion of legitimacy - as we have seen - is fuzzy and contested. Yet, governments that rank highly on the three will probably be more legitimate in public perceptions and policy actions. So, what should governments do in practice?

“The first step towards having a legitimate policy is to understand who it is working for” - as a participant put it.  In other words, when those who design policies do not have a connection with those affected, the outcomes of their policies may betray the original intentions.

Governments, therefore, need to develop empathy. Perhaps policymakers should take short internships with employers when they draft employment regulation to understand what constraints and everyday hassles they face. Alternatively, citizens could spend a day with decision-makers to understand their difficulties in balancing the principles of legitimacy.

Policy design should systematically include who governments are working for to ensure that the right challenges are being addressed and the right metrics employed to measure success. To bridge this gap, new models for engagement can be developed: from policy hackathons to citizens' juries.

“Digital technologies are not the messiah” - a participant reminded - but they can make public service delivery broader, faster, cheaper, and better. In Estonia, for example, digital IDs have guaranteed secure and seamless access to a wide range of public services. Data can also help decision-makers track progress in transparent ways and better learn why citizens are reacting in a certain way - allowing for course-correction at a new rhythm for government.

In Brussels, we didn't find legitimacy, but we uncovered new traces and tools to track it. Legitimacy changes through time and interactions, so governments need new principles and new methods for this old pursuit. To paraphrase the author Kathy Hobaugh, legitimacy is not dead, it is just larger than our imaginations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not necessarily of the European Commission. The article reports the views expressed in the Brussels edition of the series of roundtable discussion that are part of the “Finding Legitimacy” project by the Centre for Public Impact.


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 


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Leonardo Quattruci Policy Assistant to the Director-General of the European Political Strategy Centre
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