Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Social License to Operate: Legitimacy by Another Name?

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Social License to Operate: Legitimacy by Another Name?

Article excerpt

Drunks are accorded great social license in Oaxacan villages. They may shout insults, intrude uninvited into social gatherings, and behave in other normally unacceptable ways ... [A]pparent inebriation serves to define a crucial role in village life: the licensed drunk pierces the elaborate information control devices of the community and provides the barefaced facts and opinions which normally go unspoken (Dennis 1975: 856, 862).

As reflected in this epigraph, social license is not a new concept per se. In fact, social license has long been understood to play a vital function in society whereby social norms can precede and supersede legal rules. (1) In this case, the community tolerates the drunk in exchange for his role in speaking truth to power. Alongside this older conception, however, over the past two decades an allied concept of social license to operate (SLO) has emerged, especially in the context of mining, oil and gas development, and other resourcerelated projects (Gehman et al. 2016; Raufflet et al. 2013). For instance, after mentioning the concept of social license in less than 10 articles a year from 1997 through 2002, news media mentioned social license in more than 1,000 articles a year from 2013 to 2015, and more than 2,000 articles in 2016. (2) Given the increasing prominence of social media and Indigenous engagement, governments, journalists, and public administration scholars have become interested in the topic of social license to operate.

Despite the term's growing popularity, however, the concept of social license to operate has so far had only tenuous scholarly footing. In this article, we attempt to remedy this problem by reviewing and analyzing existing literature, including journal articles, popular books, and reports from industry, consultants, and government. Rather than dismissing the concept, we aim to foster greater scholarly appreciation of the key concepts and diverse frameworks potentially implicated in discussions of social license to operate. Notably, our review identifies and synthesizes three different varieties of SLO. After highlighting some of the similarities and differences among these varieties, we investigate the linkages between SLO and legitimacy, paying attention to how the two concepts differ from and interrelate with one another. We then review methods that have been used to measure social license. Overall, our review demonstrates opportunities for more systematic and nuanced terminological use, while suggesting the need for further empirical and theoretical research. We close by discussing implications for stakeholder engagement, evolving models of regulation, and potential avenues for research.

Varieties of social license

The pyramid model

The first variety of social license, the pyramid model, was developed iteratively in a series of articles, papers, and presentations by mining industry consultants over the 14-year period from 2000 to 2013. Proponents credit James Cooney, then an executive at Canadian gold mining company Placer Dome, for inspiring the model (for reviews, see Black 2013; Boutilier 2014; Thomson and Boutilier 2011). (3) In 1996, Placer Dome had been severely criticized after a tailings dam failed at one of its mines in the Philippines, releasing toxic mud into a river and burying a village (Boutilier 2014). More generally, mining was ranked the worst of 24 U.S. industries in a 1996 Roper opinion poll, behind even the tobacco industry (Thomson and Boutilier 2011). It was in this context in 1997 that Cooney reportedly characterized the industry's problems to World Bank officials as a matter of obtaining a "social license to operate." World Bank personnel are said to have circulated the term at a May 1997 conference on mining and the community (Thomson and Boutilier 2011).

A February 2000 article in CIM Bulletin entitled "Earning a Social License to Operate" (Joyce and Thomson 2000) appears to be the first attempt to provide the term with some conceptual substance. …

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