Fostering a Sense of Legitimacy - For Practitioners

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Eamon Aloyo


What Are the Problems That Need Practical Intervention?

Almost every organization or institution can improve accountability, transparency, and legitimacy. The question for practitioners is which of these are most important for your organization to work on, why, and what can you do about it.

What Kinds of Interventions Are Currently Being Utilized?

Depending on their goal and the degree of reform thought possible and desirable, practitioners use different strategies. In 2011, revolutionaries in the Arab world used popular uprisings to overthrow autocratic governments. Others call for reforms of the UN Security Council, demanding that the UNSC be more accountable to member states, and therefore more legitimate. They do so by writing papers and books, lobbying relevant individuals, and discussing such issues in the popular press. Others are working with corporations to persuade (and help) them to be more environmentally and ethically accountable, transparent, and legitimate. When the target actor is a state, generally its citizens are the ones agitating for reform, not foreigners, supranational institutions, or NGOs. Exceptions to domestic actors driving reform include external election monitors, foreign military intervention, and international economic, political, and social sanctions designed to improve the legitimacy of another state, such as occurred when sanctions were used to try to force South Africa to eliminate its illegitimate policy of apartheid.

What Are the Advantages of Each of These Approaches?

Generally, the smaller the institution, the easier it is to reform. Large institutions, with many vested interests and entrenched actors are harder to reform. Reforming the UN Security Council, for instance, has been a topic of concern for a long time, and its structure is widely seen as illegitimate in the twenty-first century. However, its structure remains unchanged. Grassroots efforts aimed at local actors may be easier to realize because the target of the reforms are less powerful.

What Are the Drawbacks of Each of These Approaches?

By aiming at the larger institutions, such as the UNSC, one may be less successful than aiming at smaller organizations. Conversely, by reforming only less powerful organizations, one cannot attain the same level of results.

What Are the Issues that Practitioners Need to Consider Before They Engage in an Intervention?

The following is a checklist of questions that practitioners might review before starting an intervention or action designed to improve legitimacy, transparency, and/or accountability.

Practitioner Checklist on Legitimacy
  1. How legitimate is an institution, a decision, a procedure, an individual, or a body? How should assessments of legitimacy be conducted?
    • Legitimacy is difficult to define, and hence measure. There are two broad ways to measure legitimacy.
      • First, you can develop criteria by which to measure it, such as whether institutions are democratic, whether affected people have a say in an institution, whether an institution protects human rights, and so forth. What measures you chose will depend on your purposes.
      • Second, you can survey constituents whether they perceive an institution to be legitimate. One of the issues that you'll have to consider with this second option is that who constituents are is itself a normative question. For instance, if you are assessing a foreign aid institution, should both the beneficiaries and funders be asked whether they consider your organization legitimate? Whose views should be given more weight? Why? Another issue with this second option is that people may have different definitions of legitimacy. This means that when asking individuals whether they believe something is legitimate, people might have different definitions of legitimacy and hence people who believe the same thing may answer the question differently (aka, content validity).
    • One way to assess a state's legitimacy, proffered by Allen Buchanan in a piece in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics in 2011, is by measuring to what degree a state protects human rights domestically and internationally as well as the degree of a state's participation in international institutions.
    • M. Stephen Weatherford proposes another way to assess legitimacy using available survey data in a 1992 American Political Science Review article. He advances “an operational means of integrating traditional macro concerns more systematically with the methodology and agenda of behavioral research by conceptualizing the components of legitimacy as part of a multidimensional construct, specifying this dimensional structure as a formal measurement model, and testing its empirical fit in a confirmatory covariance structure analysis of data on the U.S. public's orientations toward the political system” (p. 150).
    • Allen Buchanan and Robert Keohane argue for a way to assess the legitimacy of global governance institutions in a 2006 article in Ethics and International Affairs. They argue that three substantive criteria generally must be met for a global governance institution to be legitimate, including (1) minimal moral acceptability, (2) comparative benefit, and (3) institutional integrity (pp. 419-24). By minimal moral acceptability they mean only a thin list of human rights, including security, liberty, and subsistence rights (p. 420). By comparative benefit, they mean an institution is illegitimate "if there is an institutional alternative, providing significantly greater benefits, that is feasible, accessible without excessive transition costs, and meeting the minimal moral acceptability" (p. 422). By integrity they mean that an institution must act within its stated goals to be legitimate (p. 422). The more of these three substantive criteria are met in kind as well as degree, the more legitimate an institution is (p. 424).
  2. What sort of legitimacy is appropriate for the subject or institution in question?
    • This is likewise difficult to assess. Again, you could use two broad ways to decide what sort of legitimacy is appropriate. First, you could give a survey to constituents asking them for suggestions about what types of legitimacy are important to them, and then, using those responses, construct a ranking of important types of legitimacy. Second, you could develop a metric of important legitimizing factors, and then compare the institution or procedure against that metric. The two methods face the same problems as those discussed in question one.
  3. According to whom should something be assessed as legitimate or illegitimate?
    • There are a number of different ways to answer this question. Typically, there are different constituencies or stakeholders that could matter, but should count as a stakeholder is contestable. First, there are the people who are directly affected by an institution. Second, there are people indirectly affected. Third, there are often funders. Take the institution of a private school. The students are clearly the primarily beneficiaries, and the parents and the larger community are or will be indirectly affected. There may be a number of different funders such as parents, alumni, and other private donors. How to balance whose legitimacy matters and how different weights should be assigned is a normative choice. Perhaps the best way to measure this is to poll several different groups. Here is an article by Rawlins that has additional advice on how to identify stakeholders.
  4. How can legitimately be increased? Who has to be convinced to make the necessary changes?
    • Legitimacy can be increased in a number of ways, depending on what type of legitimacy you choose as valuable.
    • Given the type of legitimacy you identified as needing improvement, think about who should be involved, and how to increase legitimacy. For instance, if democratic legitimacy is important, how can the constituents be identified and empowered with more democratic powers?
    • If accountability is important to increase legitimacy, who should be held to account, and who should you empower to hold these individuals to account? One way of generating a list of possible answers is to ask a number of constituents how they would like to increase legitimacy. This can be done in a formal or informal method either through face to face discussions, online or written questionnaires, via cell phone, or by other methods.
    • Convincing those in decision making positions to change procedures may be difficult, however, because of their entrenched interests. One basic way of persuading those in power to change procedures is by making a "win-win" deal, in which both those in power and their constituents come out ahead. A more confrontational way to change powerful individuals' minds is to use public opinion of those on whom they depend for power as leverage. By threatening a power-holders' rule through nonviolent action or other political pressure, it might be possible to change procedures without the complete change of regime.
  5. Who should be empowered to make decisions?
    • One way to answer this is to defend the "all affected interests principle," as Robert Goodin and Archon Fung discuss. This holds that everyone who is affected by a decision should have a say in the decision process. The 18th century revolutionary Americans who wanted "no taxation without representation" appealed to a similar principle. Including and excluding people from the process of accountability, transparency, or legitimacy is one of the most important aspects of any political process, and is, indeed, a central aspect of citizenship.
    • Another way to respond to this question is closer in line with the contemporary practice of sovereign states. Citizens are the ones who can vote, typically, and only they can have an (indirect) say in the state's affairs — even if other people are affected by a state's decisions. For instance, Iraqis did not have the right to vote in the US in the early 2000s, even though they would be deeply affected by the US's decision to invade that country in 2003. Notice how different conceptions of legitimacy would produce different assessments of legitimacy in this case. Using a conception of democratic legitimacy (assuming the US is sufficiently democratic internally) the choice made by the US to invade Iraq would be legitimate, even if the decision could be considered illegitimate on other grounds, such as through just war theory. By using the all affected interests principle, the invasion would also be illegitimate because many of the people most deeply affected, namely the Iraqis, did not have a say in the invasion. Given all the different interpretations of legitimacy, it is not surprising that the legitimacy of this action has been widely debated world-wide.
  6. How can you employ new technology to increase legitimacy?
    • Internet technologies such as email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and text messages are beginning to be used for political purposes — both for those in power, and their constituents. The Obama administration made frequent use of such technologies to further his initial election campaign, and it is using it now that he is in office, at least to some extent, to try to be more transparent, and therefore more legitimate. These technologies can also be used as a way to motivate social movements to bring pressure on sitting regimes to reform their behavior or face removal. Facebook, for example, is said to have played a major role in the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. The hope is that the replacement regime will be more legitimate. If this occurs, the use of technology can be credited with an increase in legitimacy in that country. There should be many ways to use technology that is far short of revolution. The Internet is a great democratizing institution — it lets far more people see and know much more than used to be possible. This can be used for good or for bad, however, as information can be disseminated to do either good or harm. The organization WikiLeaks is a good example of the trickiness of this issue. Founded in 2006, the organization became known world-wide in 2010 when it released about 500,000 government documents — some of them previously secret — about the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This certainly did increase the transparency of the U.S. government's activities in those wars, but what was shown was thought by many to significantly decrease the legitimacy of both of those actions and the U.S. government itself. Others thought the only organization whose legitimacy was tarnished was Wikileaks and other media organizations who republished those documents. This is an example of how generally good goals, such as transparency, can have bad outcomes, if (for instance) the release of documents puts people’s lives at riskby publishing the names of people who collaborated with or inform the US government.
Transparency Practitioner Checklist
  1. How transparent is the institution in question? How might the degree of transparency be improved?
    • Questions you may want to ask to assess how transparent an organization is include the following.
    1. Can you easily tell how decisions are supposed to be made and whether this decision procedure was followed?
    2. Can you easily tell who funds a project and how much influence they have over the organization or project?
    3. Can you find the information you are looking for quickly and without having to pay money?
    4. Can constituents or stakeholders find information that is important to them quickly and easily?
    5. Are there structures in place that will continue to guarantee transparency?
    6. Who is withholding information or trying to make the process opaque?
    7. Even if these people are succeeding, what can this tell you about the information you are trying to obtain?
    8. What interests do the spoilers of transparency have in blocking transparency? Often determining what these people's motives are can tell you a lot about an organization, even though you may not be able to access the specific details and data that a transparent organization would provide.
    • Transparency International here prints some of its questions online that may be useful to you.
    • The Sunlight Foundation also offers a number of ways to assess government transparency.
  2. Who are the actors that can expose the issues that are supposed to be transparent and what means are there of obtaining information?
    • There are two main approaches here. First, you can work within the existing structures and incentives in attempt to increase transparency. For instance, one might contact organizations off the record, requesting information. The press is one actor whose task it is to investigate and make organizations and individuals transparent. Thus you could work with the media, or follow some tried and true investigative journalism techniques. Another option is to go through official routes to obtain information. Often large organizations have official means for obtaining information, such as the US Freedom of Information Act of 1966 that was updated in 1996. Or one can lobby an organization on the record, requesting (or demanding) that itbecome more transparent. A second, more difficult strategy, but one whichmay prove more productive over the long term, is reforming institutions or structures to increase transparency. For instance, the Freedom of Information Act — or indeed the first amendment to the US Constitution, including the right to a free press — were institutional reforms that have had long-lasting positive effects on transparency in the United States. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, so your organization could have both short and long term strategies.


  3. What types of transparency are important for your given situation?
    • Here you could again either come up with an objective set of criteria to assess transparency, or you could ask stakeholders or constituents what sort of transparency they would like. Another way you could engage this question is by asking what sorts of transparency are important for the outcomes you are looking for. Someone who is most concerned about consequences may answer differently than another person who is most concerned about transparent procedures. (Do the ends justify the means?) For example, the American founders might have been satisfied with procedural transparency of the divided government, had they only been interested in whether each branch would be exercising its powers appropriately. But if they asked what would produce the best outcomes for the American people they might conclude that freedom of the press would be important to improve transparency (and accountability).
    • Are the types of transparency you identified as important currently in place? If not, what has worked in other similar situations? What has failed? Here you may want to look for case studies, or do a comparative assessment of your organization before and after some important changes were made and assess the consequences.
  4. How does transparency relate to other goods and goals, such as accountability and legitimacy?
    • One way of thinking about this question is what your priorities are. Do you care most about seeing what is going on, or do you care more that what is going on is working in the citizens' interest, even though, at times, that must be done in secret? (This relates directly to the assessment of WikiLeaks discussed above, as many people feel that putting American servicemen at risk, as WikiLeaks may have done, was too high a cost to pay for increased transparency.) Another way to think about it is to consider which goods are necessary for others, or at least how one subject contributes to another. For instance, transparency is important for accountability, so even if you decide that your overall goal is to improve accountability, you may decide that to reach that goal you'll have to improve transparency. You might even decide that transparency is the issue to start with. Similarly, transparency may be important for legitimacy. Knowing the process of a decision may increase people’s perception of legitimacy.
    • How can these links be improved? Answering this question may provide a different assessment of transparency than other questions would yield. For instance, if your goal is to improve accountability, the sorts of transparency you may emphasize might be different than if transparency were a goal in itself. The scope of the type of transparency might be focused on the specific issues according to which someone might be held to account.
  5. What are the limits of transparency, and how else might you be able to reach your goals even if a process or institution isn't as transparent as you would like?
    • One way to avoid opaque organizations is to change who you partner with. In extreme cases, this may not only be good for your organization, but also may prevent you from breaking the law or working with those who do. Short of that, in the short term you may be able to partner with news organizations to do investigative reporting on the organization that is stubbornly refusing to become transparent. That too, has potential costs because the organization being investigated is not likely to take kindly to the investigation. Short of these relatively serious steps, you may be able to obtain important information that is not available to the public at large through diplomatic inquires and speaking to colleagues at the institution in question. This is an ad hoc and far from ideal method of obtaining information. You may be able to apply pressure to the organization in question to provide information in creative ways that will likely be specific to your situation and organizations. Finally, you may want to reconsider whether your goals can be reached without the transparency of the organization in question. This may require significantly different strategies than you had originally planned for — but they may be the best of bad options.
  6. Are you mistaking silence for consent or legitimacy?
    • People may be silent and appear like they perceive an institution is legitimate even if they do not. Individuals may have any number of reasons and incentives to quietly work or abide by a set of rules or institutions even if they disagree with or believe an institution is deeply illegitimate. These incentives may encourage people to lie on questionnaires as well, so when conducting a questionnaire, take this into consideration for both the wording of the survey as well as who and how a survey is conducted.
  7. Should anything that you're working on not be transparent (e.g., classified documents)?
    • Information that may endanger anyone's security (e.g. if they might be targeted because of their ethnicity or sexual orientation) or privacy (e.g., medical records) perhaps should be kept private or classified. Of course because a great number different things may endanger people, you will have to make the decision on a case by case basis. One place to start is with privacy laws of the US federal government. Often states have other privacy laws that you should also consult, e.g. as California does. Other issues that your organization might want to keep from public view are trade secrets, information that might be used by competitors, information that might lead to a patent, and related issues.
Accountability Practitioner Checklist
  1. How well are current accountability mechanisms working?
    • One way of determining whether they are working is by looking at the tripartite definition of accountability (presented above) and making an assessment of which, if any, are functioning. First, are there clear agreed upon or understood standards by which actors are held to account? Second, do the people holding others to account actually have sufficient power to sanction? Are sanctions strong enough to actually deter actors from straying beyond their agreed upon boundaries? Third, is there enough information available to those who can sanction to make a good decision?
  2. How can accountability be improved?
    • Accountability can be improved by any of the above three areas. If information is a problem, how could information be made available to those who need to know? For instance, an NGO may want to post its financials online for donors and beneficiaries to see how money is being spent so that donors can know whether they want to continue donating. How might sanctions be improved is a touchy subject. Typically, a range of sanction is ideal because typically an actor's performance is rarely perfect or awful. If the standards are unclear or one party has a concern about them, can they be clarified or renegotiated? What other actors may be able to assist in these areas?
    • Alnoor Ebrahim discusses the accountability of NGOs in this working paper.
    • Alnoor S. Ebrahim and Steve Herz discuss how the World Bank can be more accountable to civil society organizations in this 2007 working paper.
  3. Who is holding whom to account?
    • International organizations have been criticized for a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability. But, as Grant and Keohane note, a more accurate criticism would be that they are often not accountable to the people they serve (Grant and Keohane 2005: 29). Often international organizations are accountable to their donors, often wealthy Western states, especially the US. This highlights the important question: To whom and for whom is an institution accountable and transparent?
    • Are these the correct actors that should be (a) held to account and (b) holding to account?
    • Who else should be (a) held to account and (be) able to hold to account?
    • Answering this question depends on one's view of stakeholders that could matter here, the bounds of each which are contestable. You can find advice on how to identify stakeholders here and in the discussion above.
  4. What is the goal of the particular type of accountability and is this the correct goal? What types of accountability or other mechanisms can help you reach your goals?
    • There can be any number of goals for accountability. One can be to hold actors accountable to particular behavioral guidelines while they are at work or during heir tenure. This only works if their behavior can be monitored, and punishments or sanctions for misbehavior imposed. Another sort of accountability may require removing people from power if they overstep a certain standard of behavior. For instance, in the U.S., an elected official can be removed from office if her constituents dislike her performance through the use of a "recall" election. But she can remove from office immediately if she commits a felony. Many believe this two-tiered system of accountability is appropriate.
    • You may also want to consider who certain accountability standards may affect. For instance, being accountable to US citizens, and no on else, discounts the importance of the lives of foreigners for US politicians. Similarly, powerful individual congressmen, because they are accountable primarily to their constituents for their political power, may make policies that are less than ideal for the US as a whole (let alone the whole world).
    • The type of sanction is important as well. If the goal of a criminal system of accountability is deterrence or retribution, the type of punishment perhaps should be more severe than if the goal is to reform and reintegrate criminals into society. (This is the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice. In sum, the severity and type of punishment, and who can sanction whom, are important factors to consider in setting up or reforming methods of accountability.
  5. Should any institution or organization that you're working with not be accountable?
    • This may be useful in positions that should be free or little influenced by outside factors, for whatever reason. One example is the tenure system in universities, which are established to ensure that individuals are intellectually free of social and political pressure to pursue their research. Tenured professors cannot be fired except for breeches of university or legal codes. They cannot be fired for their views or conclusions of their research, for example. Another example is that US Supreme Court judges. These judges are not elected and cannot be removed from power unless they break the law. They're unlike elected politicians who are accountable to their constituents because the Supreme Court, the US founders reasoned, should be free from political influence in its interpretation of the US constitution.
    • How should these non-accountable or less accountable positions or institutions be judged?
      • Even if some forms of accountability are limited, actors and institutions can still be judged. For instance, professors are still assessed on their publication records, and to a lesser extent on their teaching ability and service. Supreme court justices are still judged on their legal arguments, and fidelity to the constitution, and so forth. For instance, a top legal scholar, Ronald Dworkin, recently entitled an article "The Court's Embarrassingly Bad Decisions." This didn't result in anyone being removed from office, but it might put pressure on sitting justices to be more accountable to the citizens, or face more embarrassing public scrutiny.
    • How should these non-accountable or less accountable institutions or offices fit into a larger schema of institutions and policies?
      • This is a very important question. In democracies, at least, there is a general preference for transparency and accountability, and any individual, office, organization, or institution that is not accountable must be justified. Often non-accountable positions are embedded in larger structures that are accountable. For instance, the US Supreme Court is just one leg of the highly accountable US government. In fact, it can be seen as holding the other two branches to account by limiting their powers to not overstep the Constitution. Often locating a non-accountable position in such an overarching structure of accountability is an ideal option.
    • What should the limits of non-accountability be (e.g. the law)?
      • Even non-accountable positions remain accountable in some senses. For instance, even professors or Supreme Court Justices can be fired if they violate criminal laws. In other words, accountability is limited but not eliminated entirely. Determining what ways accountability should be limited but not eliminated is specific to every organization.

Case Studies

United States Suffrage

Who votes is an important part of accountability. This is a key part of who has the power to hold actors to account. If no one can vote, we call a government a dictatorship, and although a dictator may be weakly accountable to some actors (e.g. the military and financial elite), he is not accountable to his country's citizens. At the time of independence, the American government was accountable to only a few people, namely landed white males. It took centuries for reformers to expand the suffrage movement — and still today some residents who are not citizens can't vote, and some 5.3 million American citizens cannot vote because they are convicted felons. It took until 1870, nearly a century after independence, for blacks to win the right to vote and this only happened after a bloody civil war. Because of Jim Crow laws, however, it took another century for many blacks to gain the substance of their formal rights. Women only gained the right to vote in the US in 1920. Although Congressmen are reelected at rates up 98%, this perversion of accountability is because of gerrymandering (drawing lines for voting districts in a way that benefits one party, not all), not enfranchisement. The centuries-long struggle to extend voting rights is an example of how increases in accountability are possible at the country level.

Participatory International Development

From small NGOs to major international development organizations like the World Bank or the foreign development arm of the US government, "participatory development" has become increasingly popular. Rather than relying primarily on experts to decide what sort of development projects should be implemented, this approach asks the beneficiaries what they need and how their lives can be improved. This should increase accountability of the development agency to the people they purportedly serve, legitimacy (as assessed by the beneficiaries), and transparency, as the community knows what they requested and can see if the development organization follows through.


Oxfam is a major international NGO that is one of the world's leading development organizations. Oxfam openly states that it should be accountable. They have increased accountability by making much of their work transparent, and publishing an "INGO Accountability Report" for 2008 and 2009.

Investigative Journalism Holds Actors to Account

A 2011 CBS 60 Minutes episode featured an inquiry into the Central Asian Institute's (CAI) practices. It criticized the non-profit's financial practices and found that its leader and founder, Greg Mortenson, likely lied in his bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea. Just as governments can be held to account through investigative reporting, so too can NGOs. Despite CAI's good work — and no one disputes that much of what they have done is immensely valuable — its tainted image will make it harder for them to raise money and attract supporters.

More Information

More information about accountability and transparency can be found at the World Bank's blog.

A useful annotated bibliography on communication in governance contains a great deal of information on how communication can be used to increase transparency, accountability, and hence legitimacy overall.