The week after an unexpected election result in the UK – but before the terrible news from the Grenfell Tower tragedy – the Centre for Public Impact brought together government thinkers, practitioners and disruptors in London for our Finding Legitimacy project. The topic is vast but not surprisingly for the UK, the question closed in around how can politicians, civil servants and front line services connect better with the people they serve? Why does legitimacy feel broken?

Whether from government, academia, communications, think tanks, NGOs or startups, our participants broadly agreed: the legitimacy of a government is no longer simply judged by four or five-year parliamentary terms or voter turnout, instead today people are talking about legitimacy as how citizens feel about their government on many fronts.  

Government legitimacy can be a messy concept to talk about, and easier to spot when it’s absent than when it’s present. Larry Kamener, who chaired the discussion, framed it as a simple question: when a government does something wrong, do citizens see it as yet another sign of incompetence? Or as a mistake that government will learn from?  Some mistakes are now clearer for all to see and though mistakes may be forgiven, citizens do expect better next time and when things do not improve their expectations do not fall but increase and so too does frustration spilling over into both anger and apathy.

Authenticity

A new kind of politician has become much more prominent. The group discussed this phenomenon with much energy and interest. Dominic Campbell, at FutureGov, commented that figures like Corbyn, Sanders, Trump and Warren have voices that people want to listen to because they seem more authentic, interesting and relevant.

These are not politicians who acquired a new set of skills: instead, they have always been people who spoke out, and it’s a trait that works well in modern politics. In an era when it has never been easier for politicians to talk directly to people, integrity and emotional impact matters more. Weary of stage-managed messaging and spin, people are looking for politicians who feel more “real”, and despite broadcast media being a feature of modern political life for decades, some will never master this for audiences and are even losing their human touch. When this happens, people will go elsewhere to find and then discuss what matters to them on channels and in places government cannot easily reach.

Where does legitimacy fit in the machinery of government?

But being “real” takes work, even for the naturally gifted government leaders, and is hard to fit within conventional structures in government where policy and delivery seem to take precedent over people and feelings. Some MPs and government agencies are using social media to keep in touch with citizens and answer questions: what Susannah Temko from Facebook described as “reaching people where they are and in a way that makes sense to them.” But it is not the norm yet as an integral part of government processes, she said. Nicole Valentenuzzi of the Institute for Government added that the YouTube generation wants different things from government and certainly doesn’t think in terms of government departments.

We talked about the ‘character of government’ – whether we can describe our governments in positive terms. Some said governments should be clear about what they stand for; state it in positive terms but not over promise; be clear about who gains and who won’t and why and involve people in key decisions – a brave leap into the unknown for many governments but one CPI can explore.

A mismatch of understanding and expectations

A lot of the legitimacy gap arises from the mismatch between citizens’ expectations and the reality of their interactions with government, participants said. Where do those expectations come from: is it the same-day delivery service offered by the likes of Amazon and the two-minutes-away driver from Uber, or does it come from governments themselves when they make big promises before elections?

People’s expectations of government are partly a cultural question. But how much do people want to co-create in these busy lives we lead, how much do we want government to just get on and do, but do it well and explain what it is?  Nitika Agarwal from Apolitical reminded us that government initiatives to build their legitimacy fall into three broad areas – competence, communication and co-creation but she said, “the relative importance of these areas can look very different around the world depending on cultures of political engagement.” CPI’s look around the world at legitimacy will shine a light on what matters to people where and how engagement expectations differ.

The frontline gives government legitimacy as much as the leaders

John Bretherton, a former director of communications for the UK Cabinet Office, said that it was important to remember that when frontline services cannot deliver fair and transparent efficient services, legitimacy of all of government is significantly impacted.

The frontline, others said, was an asset that government should respect and utilise more to help connect with people, as was the civil service. Nicole Valentenuzzi asked whether the civil service is too faceless to be trusted so perhaps it could be given permission to speak and engage more directly too?  Ruth Garland of the LSE felt that civil servants were trusted and should be allowed to be more communicative with people on their specialist topics as long as they are not being used for party political purposes.

However, if service staff feel under-appreciated, this feeling seeps out into the general population very quickly. As the likes of successful CEOs know, if you treat your staff like VIPs, they will pass the good vibes to your customer. Has government forgotten that?

The language of hope

It is common sense to think about our audiences, said Neil Wholey of the UK Government Communications Service, he reassured us that in the UK at least, this is starting to happen. It remains to be seen whether central government catches-up, understand it must be authentic, not pre-cook conversations and not allow itself to be dominated by business and elites? Can government do feelings? Should government even do the communicating? What can we learn from city and local government?

Neil spoke for many of us when he asked for stories of hope. Those on the frontline who are taking to communicating directly with the public on things that matter to them, on questions like flood prevention and fire safety, health and nutrition. Katy Woodrow Hill from Livity commented that people are looking for a hopeful vision and people to connect to, more than a solution to every problem, and that young people have been underestimated in their interest in politics and their communities

As we continue our work on Finding Legitimacy, we invite you to tell us your stories of hope: where is government building or rebuilding their legitimacy? How are they doing it, and what can other governments learn from it? Email us at legitimacy@centreforpublicimpact.org, or send your thoughts on Twitter #findinglegitimacy to @CPI_foundation

Attendees list:

  • Larry Kamener (Chairman, CPI) (chair)
  • Nadine Smith (Global Director of Marketing and Communications, CPI)
  • Susannah Temko (Government and Politics team, Facebook)
  • Jake Thorold (Research Assistant, RSA)
  • Nitika Agarwal (COO, Apolitical)
  • Neil Wholey (Head of Audiences, Government Communications, Cabinet Office)
  • Nicole Valentinuzzi (Head of Communications and Marketing, Institute for Government)
  • Nick Davies (Research Manager, Institute for Government)
  • Dominic Campbell (CEO, FutureGov)
  • John Bretherton (former director of communications, HMG)
  • Dr Ruth Garland (London School of Economics)
  • Katy Woodrow Hill (Strategy Director, Livity)
  • Amy Noonan (Senior External Relations Coordinator, CPI)
  • Emma Thwaites (CEO, Thwaites Communications)
  • Emma Truswell (COO, Oxford Insights)
  • Richard Stirling (CEO, Oxford Insights)
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