When is collaborative governance legitimate?

Studying the factors that determine citizens' perception of legitimacy may be vital in combating distrust of the public sector

Marc Esteve
Martín Robles

Collaborative governance – the kind of governance that, in addition to the public sector, involves private and social actors – is regarded as a viable alternative when a problem of public scope cannot be unilaterally solved by government. But what factors determine whether the public views such collaborations favorably? 

According to a recent paper by Seulki Lee (Singapore Management University) and Marc Esteve (Esade Business School and University College of London) published in Public Management Review, the representation of key stakeholders at the table and evidence of their performance are the two main factors driving the perceived legitimacy of collective governance actions.  

Collaborative governance could build trust among those looking at public management with skepticism

Furthermore, representation is especially important for those segments of the population with little trust in public institutions to begin with. This suggests that collaborative governance actions may be a good way to restore trust in public management among those who are more skeptical of it.  

On the other hand, contrary to what might be expected, the complexity of the issue to be solved – the main reason governments tend to choose this type of collaboration – does not seem to affect the perceived legitimacy of collaborative governance in the eyes of ordinary citizens.  

What is collaborative governance?  

Collaborative governance actions usually involve the public sector, civil society groups, or representatives of the private sector. Among others, they may take the form of committees, advisory boards, or coordination units.  

This type of governance largely depends on its perceived legitimacy among the network of stakeholders that sustains it. This network consists of those who participate in the decision-making because they are part of the governance group (for instance., unions and employer organizations who, together with the government, form a working committee) and those who follow the process from the outside (in this case, the rest of the population or organizations that have neither voice nor vote in the process).  

In the case of the former, the legitimacy granted by the participating groups is known as internal legitimacy and has been a subject of constant study within this academic discipline. In contrast, external legitimacy, which is granted by stakeholders who do not participate in the decision-making, has received less scholarly attention, even though it may be key to combatting distrust of the public sector

What does legitimacy depend on? 

External legitimacy is essential for the collaboration to be sustained over time. Although there is no unified theory to explain what drives perceived legitimacy, the researchers identified three factors that might do so: representation, performance information, and issue complexity

For example, in the case of school food policy councils, the public might perceive collaborative governance actions as more legitimate if all stakeholders are represented at the decision-making table, i.e., parent committees, school representatives, local authorities, etc. In contrast, collaborative groups in which all stakeholders are not represented would be perceived as less legitimate.  

If citizens have more information about a commission's performance, the perception of legitimacy increases

The second factor is performance on the goal to be achieved and information on previous experiences. When citizens have information on how the food policy council’s work is coming along, or on the performance of similar councils in the past, its perceived legitimacy should increase. The better the organization’s performance and the more information is provided about it, the more legitimacy it will have among external actors.  

Finally, collaborative governance actions are usually taken when an issue is multidimensional and requires the intervention of non-government actors. To continue with our example, food policy is a multifaceted issue involving economic costs, dietary considerations, environmental issues, etc. It can thus be expected that the greater the perceived complexity, the more the public will believe that a form of collaborative governance is the best solution.  

Keys to the study  

To gauge how much factors such as representation, performance, or issue complexity affect people’s perception of collaborative governance actions, the researchers conducted a dynamic online survey of a sample of 1,470 people.  

Respondents were asked to rate the reasonableness, trustworthiness, reputation, and legitimacy – a series of useful concepts for measuring legitimacy as a whole – of a hypothetical case study involving a food policy council.  

Some of the participants were used as a control group, while the rest were divided into three groups. The first was shown a case that emphasized the representation of key stakeholders from the district; the second, a case providing in-depth information on the council’s performance data; and the third, a case discussing the complexity of the task to be solved in greater detail.  

It was thus possible to measure the impact of each variable on the respondents’ perception of the initiative’s trustworthiness, fairness, reputation, and legitimacy. Finally, the researchers controlled for the participants’ sociodemographic variables and classified them according to their perception of the trustworthiness or untrustworthiness of the public sector

Representativeness and performance  

The results of the experiment show that performance was the most important variable driving the perceived legitimacy of collaborative governance actions. The more evidence provided to the public of the collaborative project’s performance, the greater its perceived legitimacy.  

The second most important variable was representation. People welcome the inclusion of all stakeholders at the negotiating table. Specifically, while the importance of representation did not seem to affect those who already had a favorable view of public management in general, it did have a greater effect among citizens who distrust government

Involving diverse stakeholders is key to gaining legitimacy

In this regard, the authors suggest that people who do not believe in public institutions are likely to recognize their limitations and view the high levels of representativeness typical of collaborative governance as a means of mitigating those limitations.  

Finally, the study found little evidence that issue complexity increases legitimacy in the eyes of the public. When compared with the results of previous studies, these findings suggest that, as a legitimating factor, complexity is more relevant internally – i.e., among the stakeholders who are part of the collaborative governance action – than externally

In search of legitimacy  

This study confirms the importance of providing information on collaborative governance performance. Having this information can affect the public’s attitude toward such organizations and encourage public support,” the authors maintain. Communication and information thus play a central role in building legitimacy. From this perspective, reporting on the achievements or progress of collaborative projects is essential

The authors also found that “involving diverse stakeholders to achieve a balance between the public, private, and third sectors is key to achieving legitimacy.” In particular, communicating full representation seems to be one way to boost perceived legitimacy among those groups that are most distrustful of government.  

Finally, the authors note that other factors remain to be explored in relation to legitimacy, such as the impact of the decision-making process or transparency. As more research is done, it will be possible to determine, for example, the importance of the internal decision-making procedures of collaborative boards or committees to their perceived legitimacy among the public. 

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