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Article Article September 30th, 2016

Recognising and renewing governments' legitimacy

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Citizens are increasingly aware of the limits of what government can do

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People no longer see evidence of government as a force for something positive or good

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This is truly an exciting time for governments – a time of challenges but also of opportunities

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Climate change, urbanisation, changing demographics and new technologies - talk about a fast-changing world. All of us - individuals and communities, governments and businesses, will have to adapt - and adapt rapidly - or get left behind.

For governments this is a particular imperative. Public confidence is on the wane as citizens are increasingly aware of the limits of what government can or cannot do for them. The Westminster system of governance - once seen as the model for peace, order and good government and still prevalent around the world - must adapt in order to remain the intermediator for achieving collective purposes. In many citizens' minds, government has faded away from their day-to-day existence. This means that people no longer see evidence of government as a force for something positive or good. They don't see it; they don't feel its relevance; and therefore government loses its legitimacy.

So, what can be done?

An opportunity, not a challenge

When I was serving in government, the transformation we see unfolding before us today was already under way. On the one hand, there was the demand for control on the part of a siloed, compartmentalised and often centralised government and, on the other, the need for information-sharing, collaboration and increased public engagement, as was demanded by the emerging networked environment.

These new conceptions of power and democratic governance, where horizontality and citizen-focused design are key, should not be seen as a problem but rather as a fresh opportunity for governments to stop tinkering at the margins and fundamentally redesign how they operate. Their performance - and legitimacy - will benefit as a result.

The good news is that - in Canada at least - the public are open to government's evolving role. Recent research showed that the level of trust Canadians have in the federal government is at its highest point in 17 years. But much more needs to be done. It is critical for governments to reconnect with citizens in order to regain social licence by affirming and directly linking evidence, impact and legitimacy.

To do this, governments need to ramp up their programme of stakeholder engagement. The presence of think tanks, academia, NGOs and media commentators means there are a number of increasing and often divergent voices in the public arena. Indeed, they do not hesitate to put forward different perspectives on policy, implementation and impact.

Although some policymakers may find this trend something of a hindrance, government needs to use these stakeholders - and stakeholder groups - to push back against the impression that policies are only about winners and losers. Instead, it should employ them as a proxy for re-engaging citizens about the positive role of government in creating a strong society and economy.

Reaffirming and renewing

There is little doubt that the overall governance landscape has changed dramatically over the course of recent decades. Driven by social, cultural and technological pressures, it has become more distributed and variegated, with many newly-created governing institutions lying outside the control of traditional government departments. When seen in this context, it should hardly come as a surprise that questions over legitimacy have arisen, or that it has been found to be so critical to public impact.

Yet governments have to keep pace with the times - all the more so when accelerated change has become the norm rather than the exception. This is truly an exciting time for governments - a time of challenges but also of opportunities, where governments can play an active and positive role in their own transformations. If they do so, any lingering questions of legitimacy will disappear, replaced instead by widespread acceptance and support for its role in defending, shaping and advancing the public good.

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