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Article Article October 23rd, 2017

Five things we learned about #FindingLegitimacy and what it means for developing countries

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Governments need to show they value human contact when #FindingLegitimacy

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#FindingLegitimacy means different things at different levels of government

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Legitimacy is strong when government represents and values the smaller voices #FindingLegitimacy

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Last month I had the pleasure of meeting in Singapore with people working in governments from across the developing world. We held a stimulating conversation about what legitimacy means to them in their jobs and for them personally, too. Here are five themes that emerged

1. Governments need to show they value human contact

There is no substitute for human interaction. Governments must get out more and see how people live to help improve services and not over-rely on technology, social media and, soon, AI - especially in rural communities.

Everyone in society should know government is there for them, we heard. Even if services are available online, broadband is a challenge for many people, leading to subsets of the population feeling cut off or left behind.

Example: Bangladesh's empathy triggered innovation journey saw a doctor discover that patients would not come to appointments if they had to wait and queue outside due to their embarrassment about their clothing. He created VIP rooms for them so they could wait inside.

2. Use technology for good causes, to listen, educate, discuss and provide safety in crisis

Social media is a great tool for government to connect with citizens, to inform and to educate. Simple online services are of huge value too, such as accessing real-time transportation information or paying taxes and fines. However, there are limitations of chat bots to empathise, people said, and governments should allow civil servants to engage on social media and sound more authentic when they do so. They can also be used to inform people of safe places in times of emergency.

Example: In Mexico, for example, Prospera Digital enables the government to create customised texts to mothers to deliver health information, tailored to individual profiles. Each SMS addresses the specific needs of the end user and improves the government's capacity to respond.

3. Legitimacy is strong when government represents and values the smaller voices

Government can strengthen legitimacy through better gender and ethnic representation, delegates said. Young people also want to see people closer to their own age talking to them, communicating what matters in a language that is accessible. When people in government talk, they need to say how they have formed their view and what experiences have brought them to those views, just being in government does not make you a legitimate voice.

Example: In Singapore, Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin is well-regarded and valued as a voice of the people. Her statement on the allegations of abuse of power had more than 80,000 views on YouTube. Ms Kuik, the co-founder of popular educational institute The Thought Collective, is one of currently nine Nominated MPs in the Singaporean Parliament; a function that was introduced in 1990s, effected to bring more independent voices into Parliament.

4. Legitimacy means different things at different levels of government

For leaders, legitimacy is about creating and communicating a vision. For policymakers, it is about policy coherence or feasibility, about how to get cross party support or evidence that can legitimise an idea. But for frontline workers, legitimacy might be about empowerment - the opportunity to feedback to decision makers - or, better still, allowing them to be the decision-makers.

Binding everyone together should be a common vision, one built together, clearly communicated and constantly refined and adjusted. However, lines of communication from top to bottom of government and across to citizens are often unclear. Inconsistent engagement with the frontline frustrates them as much as it does citizens.

Example: Vision 2030 Jamaica aims to help make the country the place that people choose to live, work, raise families and do business. Implementation is in three-year strategic programmes, based on the nation's development aspirations and guiding principles as articulated in the National Development Plan. At the end of each three-year cycle, public, private, civil society, and academia are invited to re-evaluate the progress. This participatory mechanism then sets the next three-year priority actions.

However, resource issues can mean plans get delayed or derailed and often the effects of the changes are not even felt. One policy official said: ‘We think we are doing well and we consult with a set group of people but for the man and woman on the street it is all unclear, showing levels of government don't always understand one another to implement well.'

In Malaysia, the youth engagement programme to build the future of the country (TN50 circles of the future programme) has shown young people want things that are already available but they were unaware, this lack of knowledge about a service or about opportunities can undermine legitimacy.

5. Being more respectful of our privacy and show how private information is being used and why

Social media and Facebook could be used better to discuss new policy initiatives. However, that does not mean people are comfortable sharing all their private information with government and, apparently, this is a contradiction governments cannot understand.

We don't know if government can be trusted with data, said delegates. One participant said, ‘they ask for more and more information…but on what basis should we trust government with this?' And another delegate said that under no circumstances should a doctor know my police record or the police know my health record.

To strengthen public trust, governments must be clearer about how personal information will be used, when and for what, and gain trust in using it on a small scale before asking for more. Some participants also felt that the open government/transparency initiatives can help show government is acting with integrity as long as it makes sense what the data is showing and the data itself is trustworthy.

In BCG's recent survey of digital government services, concerns about personal data being made public and personal data being stolen were among the five main reasons of why people might stop accessing government services online.

Example: The British Digital Economy Bill recognises these challenges. It seeks to address how the government stores and uses data in a way that can support a trusted relationship between the citizen and the state. Among others, key priorities until 2020 are to manage and use data securely and appropriately, to open up government data where appropriate, and to continue to open up government services internally and externally through the use of APIs.


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 


Written by:

Nadine Smith Founder & CEO, Nadine Smith Consulting
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