Licence to operate and social legitimacy

Issue 7 2021 Editor's Choice, Security Services & Risk Management

The concept of the ‘licence to operate’ has been coming up increasingly as a key concept in a range of areas in society. The term, licence to operate, readily brings to mind the requirement of someone needing to drive a forklift, or getting a permit to run a restaurant, or open a shop, or to store dangerous chemicals. However, the social context of the term which refers to legitimacy of actions by an entity or management in the eyes of those it affects is becoming increasingly relevant.

The term came up when I was talking to a manager of a failing company recently where a union official had said that their directors had lost their licence to operate because of non-payment of workers over a period of months. With the recent riots and looting in various parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the absence of the police to deal with the problem and the initiatives taken by communities to protect their own meant that when the police did arrive, they were accused of losing their licence to operate in those communities.

Terry Pratchett writing in a novel of unrest called Night Watch comments, “When tension was high, you relied on your mates and your family. Whatever was going down, you tried to make sure wasn’t going down your street. It wasn’t revolution. It was quite the reverse. It was defending your doorstep.”

Police, by not being there when it mattered and then trying to interfere after the fact, had effectively damaged their legitimate status to operate in those communities. Indeed, in some cases involvement after the fact was seen as directly hostile to those communities.

Another example questioning the licence to operate was by Manchester United fans against a management/ownership who wanted to take the club into an alternative competition, without consideration of the fans who made the club what it was and who were responsible for a sizeable part of the income for the owners. A US company that portrays a cool corporate image and then gets caught using child labour in Bangladesh to manufacture their goods compromises their licence to operate. It’s a concept that has increasingly become part of the debate around Corporate Social Responsibility, but is actually applicable in a far wider context in modern society.

Moral legitimacy

Unlike a grant of permission to undertake a trade or carry out a business activity subject to regulation or supervision by the licencing authority, the social licence to operate rests in a moral legitimacy and acceptance of the right to operate by members of the community and organisation. Even government, including the police and military have the same demands for a social licence to operate, although these may only be recognised by politicians come election time.

Suchman in a book on Legitimacy Theory in 1995 states that, “Legitimacy is a generalised perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definitions.” This social legitimacy may have a formal component, but the informal elements of norms, customs, community responsibilities, welfare and social contracting place a huge part in potential acceptance or rejection of authority.

Implicit in these kinds of arrangements is that there has to be a level of trust in the actions of authority, usually generated through shared experiences and thoughts to ensure that the parties are aware of each other’s perspectives and interests. It also means there is a credibility issue which relies on demonstrated actions that are consistent with agreements, expectations and the norms and values.

Actions by those in authority which ignore the interest and social and psychological contracting run the risk of violating the licence to operate within that community. The consequences are the withdrawal of acceptance and support and passive or active resistance in the form of ignoring authority figures, protests, blockades, boycotts and shutdowns.

Types of power

Much of policing and security relies on traditional concepts of power and authority. Theory has highlighted five major types of power to influence with a sixth, that of information, being added in more recent years. The influence of IT, social media, access to Internet databases and collection of personal information has brought this well into the mainstream. The sources of power are generally seen as:

• Coercive – comes from formal authority or position and allows one to force action through threat, or direct instruction whether somebody wants to do it or not.

• Reward – provides a reward that somebody values for following actions, whether psychological or physical.

• Legitimate – appointed and respected to a position or role of influence with recognised authority. This may be formal or elected, but involves leadership and a respect for the role. Without legitimate power in a formal post, power becomes coercive.

• Sapiential or expert power – influence through respect for skills, knowledge, or expertise in an area that people acknowledge and trust.

• Charismatic or referent – the ability to attract and influence through personality, to get people to follow and build loyalty and allegiance.

• Information – using or providing information as a way of influencing people or making decisions that can affect them in some way through a better knowledge of conditions, situations or opinions.

In our ideal world, police and security would be respected because of their perceived role in society – legitimate power and keeping the peace and people safe (reward power). In addition, they are supposed to be experts in dealing with unrest or crime type issues reflecting expert power.

Ideally, they should have the information or intelligence so they can be in the right place at the right time and respond timeously to situations where they are called upon (information power). In extreme situations, they have the right to coercive power through the use of force to deal with situations. If you have a charismatic leader as part of this to inspire others and gather involvement of the community, it increases effectiveness even more.

To have legitimate power and to be effective over time requires the use of a number of power sources as illustrated above, as well as employing these types of power to the good and benefit of the community and/or specific clients in the case of security. Key factors that would reinforce this legitimacy are integrity, fairness, consistency, presence and follow through. Properly used, these sources of power can play a substantial part in facilitating the social licence to operate in communities in which police and security personnel have a presence.

When people let it work

What happens, however, when police don’t have a balance of power in the areas described above, lack community support and are seen as potentially acting against the common norms and values of the people they are supposed to serve? It becomes dangerous to both the police and security officer, as well as community members. Pratchett emphasises the need for legitimacy when he writes in his Night Watch novel: “Being a copper only worked when people let it work. If they refocused and realised you were just another standard idiot with a pennyworth of metal for a badge, you could end up a smear on the pavement” (Pratchett, 2002).

Where there is conflict without legitimacy, authority falls back on coercion and the more this happens, the less the other types of power work and the overall power of the authorities steadily (or at times radically) diminishes – the social licence to operate is lost. In the UK, government and town centres have spent huge efforts in promoting responsible CCTV usage and providing information in order to maintain the licence to operate.

Conversely, reaction to some US police incidents have led to calls for defunding the police and a questioning of the licence to operate in some communities, despite good intentions of most police officers across the US. Closer to home, there is a credibility crisis with failures of policing roles during the riots, an absence of presence and a seeming lack of intelligence gathering on criminal and social issues, as well as the absence of apprehension of ringleaders of the riots. This goes together with a perceived lack of effective leadership and alleged failures in anything from forensic capacity to firearm licencing.

Committed members of the broader community

We don’t know what the tipping point is for the community withdrawal of the social licence to operate for the police, although it has probably come close in some communities around the country in the last few years. There is still a recognition and appreciation by most communities of the police involvement and presence, although this may not extend to executive levels. It is also severely impacted by involvement by police officers in crime and failures to act against people involved in crime, which directly impact on the legitimacy of the police.

The private security industry has been and is increasingly taking on the role of protection of communities and even the functions of intelligence gathering. In the meantime, there is a delicate line between efforts of many police officers who are trying to do their jobs under trying circumstances and the potential for the police across the board to lose the social licence to operate and to turn to types of power that alienate and harm those they are supposed to support.

There are lessons for security companies also, that to be effective they also need to be seen as legitimate and committed members of the broader community in order to preserve their own licence to operate. Ultimately, however, there is still a need for an effective public/private partnership in the area of community safety and protection if South Africa is to succeed. Even more importantly is that the various leaders have to develop strategies and show behaviour to ensure that the actions of entities they are responsible for are desirable, proper, or appropriate within a common socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definitions acceptable to all South Africans.

Dr Craig Donald.

About Craig Donald

Dr Craig Donald is a human factors specialist in security and CCTV. He is a director of Leaderware which provides instruments for the selection of CCTV operators, X-ray screeners and other security personnel in major operations around the world. He also runs CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language, and Advanced Surveillance Body Language courses for CCTV operators, supervisors and managers internationally, and consults on CCTV management. He can be contacted on +27 11 787 7811 or


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