Global governance, central to international rule making, is rapidly evolving; thus, there is a need for a way to evaluate whether institutions have the capacity to address the problems of the contemporary era. Current methods of evaluating governance quality are closely linked to legitimacy, about which there are competing definitional theories. This article uses a theoretical approach based around ‘new’ governance and the environmental policy arena to argue that contemporary governance is best understood as social–political interaction built on ‘participation as structure’ and ‘deliberation as process’, with the quality of this interaction ultimately determining legitimacy. It presents a new arrangement of the accepted attributes of ‘good’ governance using a set of principles, criteria and indicators, and relates these to the structures and processes of governance. The implications and application of the analytical framework are also discussed.