Consultation, advocacy, trust and legitimacy

As former War Studies student, I often find myself reaching back to quotes from military and strategic thinkers when dealing with professional challenges. One of these most reach for quotes is attributed to Sun Tzu:

'Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat'

As a result, I am always looking for ways to improve my strategic and tactical approach to professional projects. So, when I came across a blog from the Consultation Institute entitled ‘The need for a focus on public impact’ from the Consultation Institute I set aside some time to think things through.

Public Impact

In the blog post, the Consultation Institute looks at a framework put together by the Centre for Public Impact.

The framework essentially says that for those in public life to achieve a positive outcome they need to look at three areas:

  • LEGITIMACY: the underlying support for a government or a public body, helping it succeed in having the right impact

  • POLICY: the quality of the objective-setting, the evidence considered, and the feasibility study of choices made.

  • ACTION: the ability to translate policy into real-world effects through proper management, measurement, and alignment with other activities.

Now, I know my place. I am never going to get into policy development and delivering services - I will leave that to those who are properly qualified to tackle such challenges. However, legitimacy is very much in my area.  As the Consultation Institute puts it:

What is striking about this analysis is how dependent it is upon good public engagement practices. To quote Professor Mark Moore of the Harvard Kennedy School: –

“The processes of building legitimacy through consultation and policymaking – and of using the mandates that emerge from these processes as a framework of accountability that can define, animate and guide the creation of public value – are as important a managerial task as using administrative tools to control the deployment of the assets in achieving the desired results.”

In other words, the ability to listen to the public is as critical as is the ability to deliver policies.


While I won’t fault what the Consultation Institute says here, I would fault it for not going far enough. While understanding the public view of a particular policy or approach is crucial, it can only be part of building legitimacy. I say this for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it is very unlikely that in a consultation or engagement process that you are likely to be able to respond to feedback by giving respondents what they want. Not only is this because in a time of austerity limited resources mean this is unlikely to be possible. Also, what happens when you have conflicting requests from respondents? 

Secondly, I firmly believe that you need to build legitimacy a for a particular approach or policy. I simply don't believe that both can emerge from simply listening to people.

Thirdly, if the policy area is at all controversial there will be a significant number of groups and people who will be actively campaigning against what you are talking to people about. That is how it should be in a free society and campaigning creates better policy. However, if there isn't a countervailing forcing putting different view things can become difficult very quickly without the issues getting a proper airing. 

However, this doesn't mean 'selling' whatever is presented by the powers that be - that doesn't work either. You can't build legitimacy without addressing peoples concerns, needs and aspirations right out of the gate and engaging in an ongoing process of negotiation and advocacy. 


However, your efforts to advocate for a position to build legitimacy will come to nothing if you don't have trust.

The good news is that trust can be built and sustained by those who work in communications and engagement. The bad news is that all too often it doesn’t seem to be the focus of activities. From experience, there is a readiness from clients and practitioners to spend time and resources on getting the messaging, creative and collateral together. However, there is not the same emphasis given to thinking whether there is any trust between those involved and whether in the end, anyone will listen to what is being communicated.

Perhaps this is because of messaging, creative and collateral all, in the end, have a physical manifestation in a core script, logos and leaflets, websites and the like, but trust is something much more intangible.

Building trust

However, trust can be built and sustained, but it takes a commitment to key principles:

  • Transparency: People need to know about the challenges and how decisions will be made

  • Vision: People need to know why you are doing what you are doing. Why you are doing it in that way that you are. Plus, what is in it for their community

  • Constant dialogue: People need to be taken on a journey with you, through a constant dialogue - you need to listen and show how you have listened 

As well as these principles, you need the right tools to build and sustain trust:

  • Messaging: Consistent messaging needs to present the challenges and goals of the project. This needs to go beyond ‘spin’ and provide a clear public set of principles.

  • Data: Contact with stakeholders needs to be recorded along with the feedback from them. This will allow a relationship to be built and sustained over the long term.

  • Channels: Having access to the right channels means you can reach the right people, at the right time, in the right way for your message.

  • Timetable: To make the most of the key events of the project you need to have a timetable which not only provides certainty to stakeholders, but it also ensures that each moment is used to build a dialogue around the project. 

  • People: People will trust people even when they will not trust institutions. This means you need to have the right people, supported in the right way, to build a relationship and a dialogue around the project

Building trust isn’t easy, but it is essential in getting the message across and allowing a genuine debate to happen.