top of page
  • Geoff Mulgan


As part of the work of TIAL (The Institutional Architecture Lab) on the design of new public institutions we have looked in depth at the question of legitimacy. What makes a new or an old institution legitimate?

How can legitimacy be designed in? Are there any general lessons – or is everything contextual? And how logical is legitimacy, and how much is it shaped by less tangible, even magical qualities, the ‘mandate of heaven’, charisma, magnetism and so on?

In this short paper (prepared for TIAL's seminar in New York in late October) I look at the background to legitimation; I describe the key currencies of legitimacy and how these vary according to task; I then turn to strategies to find, grow or build legitimacy; and, finally, I discuss some crucial design choices.

Background – legitimation as the core task of the state

The background is a fundamental principle of political science – namely that the primary task of any political or governmental body is legitimation – defined as the right and acceptance of authority. Almost everything a state does is best understood as a means to that legitimacy. This is why states try to protect their citizens, grow the economy, or provide welfare.

This is quite a counter-intuitive idea. But the notion that legitimacy is primary and the other actions are means to that end, is more plausible than any of the alternatives, and it’s been recognised for more than two millennia. China favoured the idea of the ‘mandate of heaven’, which could be gained or lost, and Confucius wrote that every ruler needs arms, food and trust, but that if any of these had to be given up arms and food should be forfeited before trust, because once trust was lost there would be no arms or food anyway. Power can be buttressed by fear, but fear can never wholly substitute for trust because there are never enough rulers on their own to terrorise the rest. There is a contrary view – in Confucius’ time, the argument from the Legalists (influential again in China now) and ever since that power forces trust, and that legitimacy follows the exercise of power, and sometimes violence. But even this view recognises the vital importance of legitimacy, and its complex combinations of acceptance, trust and even love.

The currency of legitimacy can be turned into money through taxation. Money can buy armies or it can be converted into respect and authority, through palaces, awards and public monuments. It can be used to lock in support through welfare and public programmes, or corporate subsidies.

Losing and gaining trust

But quite what legitimacy means is very complex, very different for national governments, agencies, private firms, global bodies, technical organisations, armies, and tax collectors. It is complex in different ways in fairly united societies and ones that are riven with disagreements, like the US or Turkey. And any discussion of trust and legitimacy has to quickly become detailed: we may trust an organisation for one activity but not another (for example I might trust Google to provide excellent maps but not to handle my health), and legitimacy for very technical institutions is very different from ones concerned with war or money.

The data on legitimacy and trust is also complex. Patterns of declining trust in the late 20th century were often attributed to such factors as the generational changes in values that have fuelled individualism, or higher levels of education. But the available evidence on how trust has changed for public agencies and governments suggests that none of these factors is decisive. Where trust has declined there are usually more immediate reasons: poor performance, lack of moral purpose, failure to explain and failure to admit and rectify mistakes, and there are plenty of examples – ranging from governments in Scandinavia to central banks and police forces all over the world - of organisations that have gained trust. Most were competent at carrying out their core task; open; clear about their public and moral purposes; quick to explain or apologise when things went wrong; and good at talking to the public.

The experience of the US military is a good case in point. In 1975, after the traumas of the Vietnam war, only 20 percent of young Americans (18 to 29 year olds) expressed confidence in the people who ran the military. 25 years later, and after a period of military success, active communication, tough measures to root out discrimination, and clearer moral purpose, a Harvard poll found that 75% of young people expressed confidence in the military leadership. These gains were then lost again during the more morally murky intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan when American soldiers were seen around the world tormenting and torturing, with a decade of decline in confidence since around 2010.

Here I suggest a four-dimensional approach to legitimation which may help in the design of new institutions, describing in turn power (& money), knowledge, an essential community and competence. As I show all public institutions need some of all of these – but the most important one for any particular organisation reflects the nature of its core task and how central each currency is to its work. I then turn to questions of how legitimacy is gained and sustained, including the role of defining argument.


The first currency of legitimation is power, and money, which is a kind of power. In essence, the question here is whose support is essential to the survival and functioning of a public entity. This turns out to depend very much on context. In some nations it is enough for the ruler to have the army on their side – a hostile public doesn’t matter too much. In others the media are essential.

This is very obvious in relation to global bodies. There have been big demonstrations against the WTO at various points but so long as the major powers backed it, these had little impact. The same is true of the IMF and World Bank, which at various points were seen as darkly malign organisations – but built into their governance is dependence on a relatively small group of donors and, in the end, it was their support that was decisive.

Essentially with enough power and enough money, some legitimacy usually follows. There may be little love, but fatalism makes people comply. This has often been true of the actions of great powers and big financial institutions (from IMF to AIIB). The more power and money there is the less legitimacy matters.

This is likely to be relevant to possible new institutions, for example a new space regulatory governance body – probably only needs around 10 nations signed up. It’s also relevant to China’s attempts to build competitor institutions. These don’t appear to be doing well in terms of trust, let alone love, at least according to survey data. But the sheer scale of the Belt and Road initiative and the various investment funds may mean that this doesn’t matter too much. In short, if either power or money is core to the task of the institution these will also be essential to its legitimation.


Second, power is only legitimate if it is seen to be tied to knowledge. A ruler, or a state, has to make some claim to having knowledge about how to protect, run the economy or provide welfare, just as a religious organisation has to claim some unique insight into the nature of God and the world.

The importance of knowledge is particularly true of international organisations which need to claim some close link to expertise – how diseases spread, how trade works, where refugee pressures are most intense. And many of the most recent global bodies have been knowledge based – IPCC, IPBES – but have not attempted to add on power and money. For them the key is legitimacy as knowledge coordinators – they would quickly get into trouble if they strayed beyond that role. Again, the more that knowledge defines the role of an institution the more it will be essential to legitimation.


Third, there needs to be a social base for any organisation seeking legitimacy. As mentioned above this may be a narrow slice of a ruling elite, including the army and security forces.

But in many cases it’s a very different. For example, telecoms standards rest on the support of an engineering community (I used to work in some of their committees); IUCN on the community involved in conservation; IPCC on the support of both scientists and governments; CoVax on credibility with the worlds of medicine and public health. Many of the global medical networks are of this kind – dependent on the support of a community of professionals. In these cases, there isn’t much formal power or money – so trust or relational capital matters more.


Many incompetent institutions retain some legitimacy – but some demonstrable competence is obviously vital if effectiveness is part of an institution’s core mission. To be legitimate the military need to not lose wars. Peacekeepers need to keep peace. Health services need to keep people alive. Infrastructure operators need to keep the lights on.

For institutions that are purely expressive, or spiritual, or creative, such instrumental competence will matter less. But any institution that is set up to solve a problem will have to show that it can do its job, and that it fixes itself when things don’t work out.

As I showed earlier, this is also relevant to any institution’s attempts to win back trust and legitimacy after it’s been lost. Without a clear explanation of why things went wrong, and what’s been done to put them right (and remove the guilty) trust is unlikely to return.

So here we have four general resources for legitimacy, and four loops that are particularly important depending on the core task of the institution – power and money mattering most for ones that use power and money; knowledge for ones that mobilise knowledge; the support of a community most vital for ones that are expressions of a community, such as a profession; and competence most vital for ones that promise to fix things.


If these are some of the essential currencies of legitimation, what about the questions of how to legitimate? In creating a new institution there are only a limited number of sources of legitimacy to draw on:

· It can be borrowed, drawing on the legitimacy of existing powers, usually nation states – this is how most treaties work, and most formal international organisations.

· It can come from a crisis – and a compelling need – in which case how intense that sense is and how present it is in peoples’ minds will matter a lot. An interesting comparison is the African Union and European Union. There are many reasons why one is so much more powerful than the other, but one is that Africa didn’t experience world war in anything like the same way that Europe did.

· Or legitimacy can come from its own performance – legitimacy is steadily earned, through solving problems, and often an ability to mobilise power, money, knowledge and a community to do so.


Next legitimacy has to be reinforced. The default is for it to atrophy – slowly decaying. But there are many ways in which legitimacy can be reinforced, including:

· Rituals

· Regular gatherings

· Communications and stories

· Ambassadors

It’s interesting to observe how many institutions work hard at this reinforcement process, much of which still depends on people coming together physically.


The less obvious way that legitimacy can be reinforced is struggle. One common assumption is that legitimacy is best preserved by keeping everyone happy. But often the opposite is true: legitimacy is built and grown through the right conflicts and arguments. An interesting example is NICE – set up to assess the cost effectiveness of different medical treatments in the UK, and to guide commissioning. There were fears it would become highly politicised, with campaigns against it on specific drugs and treatments. These did indeed materialise, with mass market newspapers making vitriolic attacks on NICE. But in retrospect NICE was strengthened by the fact that it survived these attacks and maintained the integrity of its methods.

A very different example is the EU which gained in legitimacy in recent years thanks to the impacts of Brexit and then Trump and Putin, whose hostility reinforced the EU’s mission, values and solidarity. The famous comment often attributed to Winston Churchill (but actually written by Victor Hugo) is relevant here: ‘You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life’.

Yet it is of course vital to fight the right battles. Many institutions are now struggling with maintaining legitimacy amidst polarising values (for example, judging how far to go on diversity and inclusion, which are part of why conservative America has lost trust in the military).


Finally, I turn to a few design choices. The governance arrangements for any institution need to be appropriately complex for its task and context, otherwise it is likely to struggle as soon as it faces difficult issues. This is an important issue for design. It’s striking within nations that simple voting systems do not confer legitimacy: very complex ones have been needed in countries like Lebanon or Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Belgium and India. At a global level, too, a wide variety of governance arrangements have proven necessary – with one nation one vote, or one person one vote unlikely to work in practice. The Montreal agreements on ozone are another example, best understood as operating at multiple levels – from the formal treaties of governments to technology developments and assessments, and multiple timescales.


A related design choice is how focused or targeted on the one hand, or how holistic and integrative on the other, any public institution should be. The original idea of the League of Nations and the United Nations was to create holistic organisations, like national governments, able to range over many issues.

But over the last century the trend has been to ever more focused and functional institutions. These tend to be better at legitimating themselves in terms of knowledge and competence and working with essential communities.

Yet they are likely to be less effective at handling difficult transitions since these generally require packages – combinations of measures that together work politically. For example, net zero decarbonisation strategies generally require transitional payments and support for losers. So do peace deals or deals around post-conflict reconstruction. There is always bound to be a much bigger potential solution space if issues can be linked.

Governance gaps and how to fill them

The landscape of global institutions has become much more varied in recent years as the IMF, World Bank, UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, WHO, WTO, ILO, ITU have been joined by dozens of more specialised initiatives. But there’s still no shortage of governance gaps globally – from AI to cybersecurity, from implementing many aspects of decarbonisation to dealing with organised crime, biological weapons and research to space and automated warfare.

Action to fill these gaps may require fear – rather as the awareness of the risk of surprise nuclear attacks in the early 1950s galvanised action, or anxiety over LLMs has at last prompted some action around AI.

It may require some combination of activism, coalitions of major powers and opportunism.

It may require clever ways to mobilise the latent support – one recent survey conducted for UNICEF found that 39% of young people identified more with being part of the world than their own nation or region, compared with 22% of the 40-plus group. With each additional year of age, people were on average about 1% less likely to identify as a global citizen.

Hopefully all of these points suggest how any new institution coming into this landscape can grow its own legitimacy – aiming at some mix of power, money, knowledge, the backing of an essential community and competence – and then having strategies to find, grow and sustain legitimacy over time.

[The Institutional Architecture Lab - TIAL - launches in November 2023, including publication of its guide to the design of new public institutions]

bottom of page