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ECPR Standing Group on the European Union 10th Biennial Conference LUISS, Rome

Successful yet Looking for Legitimacy – An Exploration of the Legitimation Strategies of Dutch Water Authorities

Public Policy
Stefanie Beyens
University of Utrecht
Stefanie Beyens
University of Utrecht

Dutch water authorities traditionally derive their legitimacy from being governed by a democratically elected board. They are often referred to as ‘functional democracies’, in that the 21 water authorities covering the Netherlands are in charge of most water management tasks in their territory (drinking water, sewage systems, contingency plans for floods or water shortage) and have democratic elections every four years. They are effectively run by elected officials from the most important Dutch political parties (formed on the economic left-right cleavage) and from local vested interests (both agricultural and non-agricultural business, environmental organisations). On top of this, they are not dependent on the national governmental level for funding, as they levy their own taxes. And yet, the water authorities are almost neglected by Dutch media and election turnout is low, endangering the legitimacy they derive from organising democratic elections.
In this paper, I argue that Dutch water authorities employ novel legitimation strategies that go beyond those listed by Suchman, for example. They attempt to increase their input legitimacy by calling upon citizens to be involved in governing water management between elections. In addition, their attempts to relinquish some independence in governance networks can be interpreted as an attempt to bolster throughput legitimacy.
Focusing on two water authorities, I compare strategies by analysing founding documents of both ad-hoc and more established networks and by interviewing key players. This paper aims to contribute theoretically to what we know of successful public organisations by combining insights from political science and from public administration literature on legitimacy and governance networks.
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