The legitimacy of the governance for sustainable development


Draft for review, date last revision: 17 October 2022


Cocreation for sustainable development: all hands on deck

Our global society has become so complex that hierarchical governance, democratic or not, falls way short of what is necessary to create conditions for a sustainable development (e.g., Ansell et al. 2022). Fortunately, we have a repertoire of other governance modes that can be customized – by means of 'metagovernance' to which I will return later - to skew the drivers of our specific developments toward sustainability (e.g., Meuleman 2018).


To achieve that, it’s all hands on deck. The public, private and civil sectors must work together in a balance (e.g., Mintzberg 2015) in many ‘cocreations’ of rules and investments that bias developments away from unsustainability. Cocreation, leading our development ahead of the mainstream, is done in coalitions limited to ‘willing actors' who share opportunities and risks. This includes the political risk that premature exposure to a wide and inclusive audience can 'kill' poorly understood – yet sustainable - ideas. Transparency of cocreated ideas must therefore be carefully managed, and social inclusion in cocreation is feasible only up to a limit.


On the bright side, given time, exposing cocreated ideas in smaller steps one-at-a-time to an audience may help affected groups to gradually and widely appreciate these ideas, even if they are not understood and perhaps perceived as a threat at first. In each step the government can check and increase the legitimacy of these ideas - and adapt its legitimate scope for sustainable developments. 


Hereafter I summarize how leadership may promote 'legitimate cocreation' by hybridizing governance and to that end use tools like impact assessment, the right kind of polls, and citizen's juries. In a second blog I elaborate more on this kind of leadership.


Cocreation at odds with public legitimacy

Cocreation of measures that contribute to sustainable development cannot do without an active public role (think of taxing carbon emissions or designating sites for large investments in the energy transiton). The public sector, to be able to make that contribution, needs to give legitimacy to its own role: the measures must be widely supported, politicians should widely believe that noone is left behind, and it must be in accordance with the law. Public actors must be transparent to give their actions legitimacy, but in cocreation they also must carefully manage that transparency not to prematurely engage with a wide audience if ideas have not yet sufficiently been thought through. For example, how adverse impacts will be fairly and credibly mitigated or compensated.


That makes cocreation at odds with legitimacy. Some might even see cocreation as conspiracy.


The need for hybrid governance

How can the government know what is legitimate without taking the risk that ideas will prove premature? Ideas may be politically crushed without any chance of a wider social learning process. As legitimacy is created in transparent and inclusive processes run by the public sector, it cannot easily mix these legitimacy-creating processes with the processes of cocreation.


Nothing in secluded cocreation has been decided until, where needed, inclusive participation on some more formal platform has created legitimacy. Both cocreation and legitimacy-creation therefore require a specific mode of governance in terms of inclusiveness of their processes - but these modes then should again be connected -or 'synchronised' - at the level of substance: we need hybrid forms of governance (Ansell et al. 2022).


Hidden interactions preceed transparent interactions to enhance complex problem solving

Hybrid governance is inevitable (Torfing e.a. 2012): every frontstage has a backstage where actors feel safe enough to gain confidence in each other before they can perform frontstage. More united for the long term, whilst often still competing for the short term. The complex problem-solving capacity of the governance system will increase if the total number of bridging interactions increases. ('Bridging' is here used in the sense of 'bridging social capital' as proposed by e.g., Robert Putnam).


The essential question is: how can opponents, interdependent in the long term, gain trust to limit the shortterm risks of inclusiveness: backstage first, and then frontstage? More hidden bridging interactions will then lead to more transparent interactions as well, which can again become the frontstage of more hidden bridging interactions. This results in a virtuous cycle towards more trust and collaboration and transparency. (A sequence of iterative linkages between formal (transparent) and informal (partly secluded) coevolving networks is described in my PhD thesis (Nooteboom 2006)).


Those demanding more transparency should not disqualify every meeting where they are not invited as conspiracy. (In this blog I elaborate on 'complexity leadership' as a theory on constructive hidden interactions.)


Complexity leadership and metagovernance as hybrid governance

Some public managers understand the need for hybrid forms of governance. They look for approaches to separate and bridge cocreation and legitimacy. Scholars of public administration (or public management, which is about the same), theorize about hybrid governance. For example, Torfing et al. (2019) focus on metagovernance (governance of governance): decisions (interventions) that structure governance in accordance with a specific complex situation (see also Nooteboom & Marks (2010) on 2nd-order governance). Rodrik & Walty (2021) engage in metagovernance by proposing a ‘meta-regime for constructing world order’ that presumes only minimal agreement among the major powers to structure conversation.


Assuming that metagovernance can be effective, another enigma remains: how can metagovernance itself happen? Is it self-organizing leadership for the common good (i.e., agency - behaviour of individual actors)? Is it creating 'meta'-structures that enable agents to deliver 'meta'governance? In my view complexity leadership theory is part of the answer, and it seems to be about both actor and structure. 


But first a word on the possibility of tools for complexity leaders: institutional blenders.



Public governors (i.e., actors) may apply impact assessment procedures (i.e., structures) to give legitimacy to cocreated results. The public cocreators can submit the public component of cocreated public measures to an impact assessment-procedure each time a cocreating alliance needs confirmation of the support for, and legitimacy of, the direction it is taking. Impact assessment procedures have been designed to enhance legitimacy in two ways: first, it secures formal transparency and inclusiveness, and, secondly, it produces widely accepted, juridically tested arguments to substantiate the choices the authorities then make to ‘govern’ next steps in cocreation (Nooteboom 2019). It does so by defining the acceptable space for development and policy proposals.To enhance legitimacy, authorities may also consult the public in other ways, like in citizen juries, minipublics or polls asking the public's values, and whose results are widely communicated.


Obviously, public authorities will have to deal with any cross-sectoral and multi-level aspects of the results coming out of cocreating alliances, and with the fact that several competing alliances may plead for alternative public measures. Several public authorities may therefore have to join-up and make their own boundary judgements for a joint legitimacy process and 'choose' between the alternatives. 'Hybridisation-tools' like impact assessment have the flexibility to support this choice and to enhance its legitimacy at the same time.


Governance may link all cocreation going on in alliances inside carefully chosen system boundaries, where different sectors and government levels touch each other. The art of public planning is to cut this off at some boundary to sufficiently reduce complexity to keep the inclusive dialogue and political negotiations manageable, and still remain constructive in the sense that as much interests touched as possible are in the boundaries.


The point: the design and application of impact assessment, citizen’s juries, minipublics and other ways of structuring governance processes may hybridize governance. They may serve to synchronise cocreation with legitimacy creation by formal planning, leaving both processes sufficiently intact and switching between the two as needed, transferring ideas from cocreation to legitimacy, and public decisions from legitimacy back to cocreation. This resonates with the idea that novel forms of citizen involvement should not replace, but are complementary to the institutions of representative democracy (see e.g., Duijn & Van Popering-Verkerk 2018).


To use a metaphor: risk sharing and legitimacy-creation are like oil and water: they separate from each other if nobody is stirring: risk sharing being allergic to full transparency, and legitimacy being fully transparent. If both are too much separate, formal planning will either adapt to cocreation in shocks, or it will coerce cocreation to suppress its creativity. Both in hindsight are likely to be less legitimate – it is the choice between market dominance and government dominance, a choice we should not make as we need them both.


Institutional blenders

The one who stirs - a metagovernor - may use a spoon - or easier: a blender. Good blenders, well-designed public decision-making procedures that can flexibly respond to cocreated results and create a playing field for new cocreation, only affect the interactions between cocreation and legitimacy-creation. They do not prescribe how to arrive at effective government measures to influence development: this still depends completely on the agency of the interacting actors.


There is an important possibility of what might be called superblending: cocreation alliances, where authorities participate, create legitimacy for their ideas by themselves in a single process, ensuring sufficient inclusion and lawfulness. Cocreation and legitimacy creation are then blended so well that they cannot be separately observed anymore. The public only 'sees' the outcomes, and political resistance to partial planning decisions largely evaporates as enough see how the decison will contribute to sustainable development. I will set the interesting possibility of superblending aside for the moment, but I will return to it at the end of this blog.


So how can someone design a blending tool that will facilitate agency for sustainable metagovernance? We need to first understand the agency-side of hybrid governance better: complexity leadership. To that end, I wrote a second blog.


Improved with feedback from / after discussion with: Lonneke Dikmans, Geert Teisman, Jitske van Popering, Ytsen Deelstra, Jos Arts .. (Draft for feedback, appreciate if you send any observations to



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