Civil servants in the UK probably don’t spend too much time worrying about the legitimacy of the government they serve. But perhaps they should.
Not in the sense of democratic mandates and legal authority to rule, but in the broad sense of the “reservoir of support a government needs to achieve its aims.” This is the definition set out by the Centre for Public Impact, which says if a civil servant’s primary aim is to help politicians design and implement their policies, they should be concerned about building and maintaining that reservoir of support.
Last year, the CPI launched a research project to understand how to build and retain legitimacy, and they have just published their first report. They spoke to groups across the world who are not usually represented in discussions on government and policy, and CSW was invited to attend one such conversation with a group of young people in Brixton, south London.
Some of the challenges discussed at the session cantered around education, employment, housing – issues that seem recognizable to policymakers, though they might have been framed slightly differently in Brixton than in the corridors of Whitehall.
So, for example, when one participant spoke about school not helping him to find a job, policymakers might nod and think about challenges of technical education, of skills policy and apprenticeships. But beneath these seeming points of connection there was a deep cynicism and sense of dislocation from government.
Everyone agreed that politicians – whether local councillors, or MPs across the river in Westminster – neither understand the challenges young people face, nor show any inclination to change. “Policymakers completely are disconnected from this area they don’t understand it let alone have the ability to change it,” said one participant, while another noted that even when politicians do engage with their community, it is seen as being for show rather than from a genuine concern.
One young man had advice for politicians hoping to engage with young people: use your platform to highlight other people’s experience, rather than trying to push your own agendas. “Don’t try to fake a connection, let someone else [speak],” he said
While the young people did have a sense of hope that individuals could achieve success despite the challenges they face as a community, they were pessimistic about wider systemic change which would remove those challenges. Speaking about education, for example, one girl said she believed the school system was designed to benefit the better-off, and while she would work hard to succeed, she didn’t believe she would be able to change that system for the others coming after her.
Another participant used a story about a boy who had worked hard for a professional football contract to illustrate that individual success doesn’t translate to community benefit. “As soon as he got his professional contract, people in the area started saying ‘he’s got money... he owes us something’, so he left. That aspiration didn’t stay within the area.”
Is the answer to increase representation of young people or BAME people among politicians and government? In the long run, of course so, but there was ambivalence about those who do manage to make it into politics or positions of influence. One young man said that his peers think that to make it into politics you have to “dilute yourself”. Another described the problem of representation as two-fold “it’s too elite up there, and it’s too elite at the bottom as well because people say when you become a councillor, ‘Oh, you’ve changed’.”
Underlying this was an understanding – albeit not always explicitly expressed – that the lack of engagement is a two-way challenge. One member of the Lambeth youth council noted wearily that youth services were cut first when budgets were squeezed because “youth don’t vote”. Another participant, talking about Brexit and the recent general election, said that people don’t really understand the issues – “in this area there is just tribal voting”.
What can be done to change this? The CPI has five recommendations to build legitimacy – work with communities to build a shared vision; bring empathy into government; build an authentic connection, enable the public to meaningfully scrutinise government; and value citizens voices including responding to them rather than just conducting tick box consultations.
Much of this is already going on in government of course – though with varying degrees of commitment – and very often it is happening in the best teams where policy and delivery are both fully connected and centred on users. In particular, the advice on bringing empathy to government chimes with an article written by One Team Gov co-founder and occasional CSW columnist Kit Collingwood-Richardson, who last year argued that empathy should be a core skill for civil servants, saying: “Empathy – or lack of it – can make or break how good a policy is. If we don’t predict the effects of our ideas accurately, our policies and services will fail to do what we intended: we’ll waste time and money, and let people down.”
The civil service can and does help improve outcomes and build legitimacy as it helps government achieve its goals. But the wider issue raised in Brixton – a deep lack of trust from groups who feel government not only has nothing to offer them but requires them to dilute themselves in order to succeed – can’t be addressed by civil servants on their own, not matter how empathetic they are, nor how strongly they make the case for legitimacy to achieve particular policy aims. This challenge won’t be addressed until politicians begin to take a real and sustained interest in the challenges facing all communities, rather than just the portions of the electorate most likely to return them to power.