Power and legitimacy in government

Below are some thoughts I had scribbled out as part of a discussion at university a few years ago. I was reminded of it through a discussion with a friend yesterday. I think it is a topic worth considering on an ongoing basis.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently around what constitutes legitimacy in government or the powers that be throughout time. It has been quite fascinating to consider what people expect, what they get, and what holds it all together.

Basically, I content that legitimacy isn’t binary but rather a spectrum. Legitimacy isn’t static, but rather something that has to be continually established, something that needs to be earnt. Gone are the days where the sword or gun ruled, because people’s fear of force has (at least in some countries) been outweighed by a sense of self-empowerment and people expecting to have a say. In democracies around the world, this say, this legitimacy, has for many years been established at the ballot box. But the Internet has changed things and legitimacy now requires so much more.

Governments today face enormous challenges to how they’ve always done things due to the democratisation (mass distribution) of communications, publishing, monitoring and indeed enforcement. We are seeing a) individuals can hold governments to account much easier and louder than in times past, b) governments finding it hard to transition to the conversational and collaborative approach expected online, and c) the role of the media, particularly in mainstream publishing has become more and more politicised making it harder for people to hear an apolitical mainstream voice from which to make up their own mind.

Legitimacy is a tricky thing in a time when anyone can say anything, when the media often reports all perspectives as if they were of equal relevance/truth, and the voice of government is just another voice in the cacophony of the Internet. In announcing a policy, a vacuum of information is created. If that vacuum isn’t filled with updates, the policy status, what it means and active engagement with “the people”, then the policy might succeed on paper, but completely fail from a public perspective if the vacuum is filled with an alternative narrative.

Legitimacy used to be enforced, now it has to be earned, every day. Nowadays, particularly in democratic countries, Β without legitimacy it is very hard to maintain power.

It’s also worth considering that we (in Australia) expect a *lot* more from our government now than anyone would have dreamed 300 years ago. Health, public transport, free education for our kids, etc. We also have much higher obligations but can (often) rationalise that with the benefits.

So where does legitimacy break down, and is it possible to predict when a social system will break down and transform?

I’ve come up with two simple tensions that perhaps play a part in the ongoing legitimacy of an entity in power that hopefully reflect how societies relate to and judge legitimacy. I think this formula works both for the times of Hobbes and for now. Regardless of the fact that expectations of many modern societies has changed fundamentally from those times as we are more globally aware, connected and empowered than ever before.

Both of these tensions can be analysed at an individual, community and nation/society level, and fundamentally, whilst ever the vast majority of people in the society are not getting a negative result from these criteria, the power and structures will not be seriously challenged or threatened.

The first tension is the benefits versus the obligations *and* inconveniences. Benefits include things such as health care, security, or education. Obligations are things such as taxes or abiding by the law. Inconveniences are things like being threatened if you don’t vote a particular way, or being sent to gaol. If the benefits you receive outweigh the obligations+inconveniences, there is a positive result, if they are roughly comparative, a neutral result, or if obligations+inconveniences outweigh benefits, a negative result.

Secondly is relationship between the the perceived reality of the ruling power and the expectations of the ruling power. For instance, some people may not see it as the role of the government to enforce a moral standard, so if the government does something they perceive as conflicting with this expectation, then that can be a problem. If perceived reality is not in line with the expectations its a negative result, is roughly equal then neutral. This depends heavily on the success criteria communicated by the ruling power and the related perceived success of that ruling power. For instance, if the ruling power sets a low bar (or a reasonable bar) and is seen to overachieve, that is a positive result, seeing to have achieved what was laid down is a neutral result, and underachieving, even if the bar was set too ambitiously high, is a negative result.

Put more simply:

Test 1: benefits minus obligations+inconveniences
Test 2: public expectations (success criteria) minus perceived reality (success)

Both tests demonstrate the importance of good clear communications and engagement with the public.

Interestingly, in my opinion there has been a growing discontent on both tests in Australia. Although we have high benefits and high obligations, the inconveniences haven’t really been seen as that onerous for most people. But we are seeing an interesting scope creep with policies relating to the Internet and intelligence agencies starting to create more inconvenience to the population. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the coming years, as it appears more and more of the population are starting to feel a rise in our obligations and inconveniences.

Interesting times. In the Chinese sense πŸ™‚ Would love to hear your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Power and legitimacy in government”

  1. This goes beyond government into the world of science too. Scientists often complain that the mainstream media gives equal weight to issues ‘in the name of balance’ when there is otherwise little scientific evidence to justify giving such coverage to a supposed alternative.

    This is where “We the webkids” is particularly good:

    “We have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible. We select, we filter, we remember, and we are ready to swap the learned information for a new, better one, when it comes along.”


    From the mid-1990s in the UK, the term ‘spin’ became political parlance – as did the job ‘spin doctor’ given to those in communications roles that tried to ‘spin’ positive coverage of issues (mainly political) in the media. Social media users are able to see through spin much more easily – not just because they have become used to spin but because they are growing much more savvy at finding out what the facts are.

    In terms of tensions, my take is that the law will inevitably take time to ‘catch up’ with how people are using social media. Social media use by its very nature has made the nation state almost obsolete. For example libel laws and contempt of court laws can be and have been easily flouted by people using social media and internet sites based beyond the reach of English law authorities. It’s led to farcical situations where the print media has been prevented from printing what many people have been able to find out on the internet. How do you reconcile the two?

    I also think there is a ‘capacity of the state’ issue too. I just don’t think that individual policy teams in a number of key fields have sufficient numbers or expertise to deal with some of the problems and vested interests that the state (as the ultimate national regulator) has the responsibility for. Large corporations can call in resources and expertise that can overwhelm the capacity of government policy units – leading to problems of regulatory capture. Which makes people’s use of social media a big problem for such interests.

    Just on test 2, the risk as far as politics is concerned is that politicians will now underpromise in the hope they might over-deliver. I remember comparing our Deputy Prime Minister announcing a set of social mobility indicators to deal with that problem (See http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/content/social-mobility-indicators) Compare that with the 1945 post-war government that created the National Health Service, free at the point of delivery and laid (for all its problems later on) the foundations of the welfare state. If politics becomes underwhelming, people may quite understandably turn away from it and towards something that seems much more exciting. That’s a risk to democracy.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Puffles. Definitely a few things to consider. I do want to point out though that I don’t think the nation state will become (or should become) obselete. It is a useful tool for the people, and for a society to prosper, if it is done well. I went through this a little in another post about Digital Government where I spoke about how gov can be a tool to create and maintain a more egalitarian society. We will always need a way to deal with out garbage, roads and public infrastructure/services in a scalable way, and I think nation states can do that. However, their reach is definitely an ongoing debate. You might like my Distributed Democracy idea (in very very early phase) which represents a way for us to have our online voices properly represented, which can’t be done by nation states by the very fact that they are bound by jurisdiction itself bound by geography.

  2. Yes, communications are a critical part of this melee, however there is another factor which is changing: honesty.

    In many cases (cui bono) information is made available which serves purposes other than truth.

    While the melee makes substantiating this (essentially false) information more difficult, the enormous spectrum of unsubstantiated information already available has accustomed us to not caring enough to follow the references in order to make the validity of the information any clearer.

    Back in the day when the Romans would burn one at the stake for daring to disagree with them, the power contrast was more publicly obvious. The contrast is still present. Making techniques widely available for more clearly validating or falsifying what we are told is an important component of avoiding a different kind of slavery.

  3. Test 2 can conceivably be skewed by communities with strongly held views and links to existing “perceived” legimate power structures. Think tea party or Taliban. The issue here is about encouraging some greater level of engagement in the process. At some levels Australia’s compulsory “voting” system has advantages over say the US in this regard, although there are still risks.

    The idea of any “broader” whole of community (be it nation state or local council) is anathema to some, finding the legitimate broad view that such will be willing to accept in a highly contested policy space is always tricky. There will probably always be some who for whatever reason believe that what one group whether politicians or scientists holds as legitimate and reasonable is in fact wrong not because they disagree but because they hold or believe that such views are not possible. Ie you can’t argue the values of alternate climate policies with people who deny that there is a climate in the first place.

    Finding a way to allow people to simultaneously hold such views whilst not reducing everyone else to their “construct” of reality is challenging. By construct I’d argue that many world views whether isolated or broad are ultimately constructed, it’s just that some constructs by their nature refuse the possibility of their being others.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Sean, you raise a really interesting point. Is there where we talk about the important skills and cognitive tools we need to teach all citizens in order to have a better democracy? πŸ™‚ Understanding that both you, and another person, might actually both be right, or wrong, whilst holding different views. Is it necessary to establish some basic perspectives that everyone can agree with in order to have this kind of important public dialogue around important things? Is critical thinking enough? How do you teach self-awareness and empathy?

      All things to consider. Also, if a country does have a majority of its citizens hold an extreme view, and has a democracy that reflects that extreme view, then though the democratic process has technically worked, what does it mean for the rest of the world? Is there a global standard we can all subscribe to? The UN Declaration of Human Rights seems something that cuts across a lot of countries, but the devil is in the detail, and what one country does massively affects other countries so how do we find that balance between self rule and international harmony?


  4. A fair post, but a little too binary for my taste.

    A positive or negative citizenry is a known quality for a government, which can then take appropriate steps to protect itself (from negativity) – by changing views or bolstering its defenses (changes to representation & electoral laws, detention/subversion of leading opponents/increased monitoring and legal/extralegal recourse for dissent).

    More complex to deal with are the situations we find more commonly in more democratic societies, where citizens are conflicted – agreeing with some government policies/activities and not others. The dissonance created in each individual citizen is different and therefore it is not easily possible to map their likely actions and take appropriate steps. In fact conflicted citizens are far more likely to react negatively to steps by government to protect itself at their expense than positive citizens – as it typecasts them in a way they don’t agree with, leading to faster an more violent responses, but only by some citizens (and it can be impossible to predict which will ‘go postal’ without extremely invasive monitoring and predictive systems).

    While the Internet has reduced the power imbalance between governments (largely centrally controlled and hierarchical institutions) and citizens (largely unorganized groups identified through commonalities in geography, culture and community), it also presents new control tools for governments via the capability to monitor citizen views an identify both ‘troublemakers’ and the formation of networks which could become the centre of future unrest.

    In this way we currently see an arm race occurring, not solely between governments (some of whom actively support activities to use the Internet to undermine other governments), but between governments and citizens – where citizens develop approaches to conceal their networks and governments seek the power an tools to monitor them.

    This arm race is reflected by the escalation between police and criminals and security forces and external entities seeking to violate that security (criminals/terrorists/foreign states/corporations).

    What becomes dangerous, however, is when the lines are blurred. When the same tools used to organise citizens in lawful opposition to government policies are the same tools used by criminals, terrorists, foreign states or corporations to seek financial, ideological, diplomatic or competitive advantage over a specific nation or its organs.

    Suddenly every citizen is a potential criminal or terrorist, rather than a positive force for political improvement.

    This is the landscape we now inhabit. Negative citizenry are using the Internet to organise peaceful and violent activities against states (Arab Spring), nations are using the Internet and related tools to attack other nations (Georgian cyberwar, Stuxnet virus), terrorists organise within game chat rooms and intelligence forces seek to keep a record of all activities by all citizens for long periods of time – just in case – with the net step being the use of ‘big data’ analysis systems (as the US is building) to identify ‘thought terrorism’ before it becomes actual violence or negative actions.

    Conflicted citizens are the hardest to predict and manage. They will support one policy while criticising another – becoming very hard for centralized political authorities (parties) to quantify as a supporter or opponent. As such the default position is likely to be to place them in the opponent column for risk mitigation reasons. Ergo, “he doesn’t support everything we say, therefore he is unreliable and it is safer to not give him any oxygen by highlighting when he does support us, or any official position where he received greater recognition but can backbite us”.

    This sees political parties becoming more narrow and restrictive in who they trust and promote to positions of authority within their party, within supporting bureaucracies and who they support in leadership or public roles in affiliated entities (charities reliant on government funds, etc).

    The net result is a narrowing of the power base and shift towards groupthink – a view that you are either ‘in or put’ which further polarizes societies and creates greater probability of (needless) unrest.

    A solution to the above issue – brought on by conflicted citizens, who are growing in number and often feel that way due to their greater access to information and capacity to build like-minded networks online – is to reshape the political process around issues rather than parties.

    On this basis citizens would feel empowered to support and oppose given issues without the straitjacket that ‘parties’ impose by having a singular view of the world. Citizens would be able to individually express their views on a per issue basis an feel represented (even if they don’t get their way) in a broader sense than the failing political party model allows.

    This may involve changing the entire basis of government from being a single monolith lorded over by a singular party or collection of affiliated parties (as more often occurs in proportional representational systems) to being a more complex web of discrete entities with their own elected leadership.

    For example as a model approach, rather than electing a representative for a given geographic area, we may vote a Minister for a given portfolio. That Minister would work with others on interlocking issues under the watchful eyes of a partially elected, partially randomly selected citizen panel with the power to sack a Minister who put their own power ahead of the good of citizens.

    This model would involve an independently elected head of state who would oversee the citizen panels and the overall budget, however would not directly control Ministries. There would be the ability for a sufficiently large group of citizens to call for the re-affirmation of this head of state at any time. Effectively a citizen vote of ‘no confidence’ that, if failed, could lead to a new election.

    Within specific Ministries citizen panels and direct citizen voting could be employed as required, under the watchful eye of the head of state, to resolve specific issues ‘above the paygrade’ of the Minister and integrating citizens at the core of the process.

    Parties would also need to be carefully constrained and the head of state could not belong to one as they speak for all citizens.

    Of course this is a rough model and presents complexities which would need to be resolved. Other approaches may reach the same goal – to reduce dissonance amongst citizens and the prospect of state breakdown.

    Certainly it is just as viable to move to a ‘1984’ style surveillance state, where the state monitors all citizens on a continuing basis, via CCTV, face recognition and Internet monitoring – a prospect that is now becoming reality, enabled by the ability of big data tools such as Hadoop to analyse enormous amounts of data for trends.

    While many people would shy away from the 1984 model, it is the ‘natural state’ governments of all persuasions are drifting towards as an extension of crime and terrorism opposition activities. ‘Good’ citizens (an ever smaller group) have, of course, nothing to fear. Only the ‘bad’ – those who do not completely agree with the full package of policies and activities of a particular government – are at risk.

    This is the natural position for governments to drift towards as it allows them to maintain the status quo on parliamentary an electoral systems. The least energy solution for governments, given the alternative – a radical reform of governance systems – is only ever seen as a last resort of a failed state.

    This is the risk we now face around the world. That governments will protect their own systems, privileges and powers through preserving their existing mechanisms, to the point of complete failure. Or those holding the reins of power, given the citizenry (the horses) their own head is a far scarier proposition.

    So how do we get governments, in today’s conflicted and always on world, where the main goal of the ‘King of the Hill’ political game is to remain on the hill, to recognise that they need to cannibalise themselves, raze the hill and seek a more level solution to the problem of governance?

    That is the trillion dollar question.

    1. Hi Craig, thanks for sharing your thoughts but I think you possibly read it as more binary that it is πŸ™‚ Citizens (and we are all citizens, even the politicians and public servants) are always conflicted. It isn’t about whether people are conflicted or not, it is about what conflicts them *more*. I was mostly looking at when and how legitimacy is threatened and the relation between that and power.

      I don’t agree with your generalisation that governments will protect their systems to the point of complete failure. I think we are seeing many governments actively trying to engage and adapt to be more useful, and to reach out to be more collaborative in nature. I think we are seeing something of a renaissance in culture spreading across the world, and governments have a lot to gain by engaging, and a lot to lose by not.

      I think also, the monitoring goes all ways, and it is the monitoring of the state (and corporates for that matter) by the citizens that is starting to drive better behaviours.

      I am genuinely really excited and I am seeing progress that makes me optimistic. Combined with the fact that there is an entire changing of the guard in governments across the world (baby boomers to gen X) I think we will see many governments adapt, and become more useful and representative of their citizens. Else face the wrath of their citizens πŸ™‚

      The bigger question is whether nation states are enough, or whether we need a truly transnational representative voice for online citizens, given the fact that geographically defined jurisdictions (nation states) are very limited in how the engage with Internet culture and the presence of their citizens online.


  5. Hey Pia, to throw in another thought. Is there such a thing as digital sovereignty.

    If yes, can entities exist ‘online’ that do not exist in physical space?
    If not, are any nations’ laws enforceable on online activities?

    Apologies for my previous comment where I frequently had ‘an’ rather than ‘and’ and an ‘Or’ instead of ‘For’ and ‘net’ instead of ‘next’.

    I type some words faster than my iPhone keyboard can parse – and it isn’t the ideal tool for reviewing long works for grammatical errors πŸ™‚

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