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by Johan Christensen with Sarah Brown
24th February 2021

Originally published on the Policy & Politics blog.

“We have to listen to the experts.” During the coronavirus pandemic, this phrase has been repeated by politicians across the world. Only a few years ago, we were told that “people have had enough of experts”. Now experts are back in demand. At press conferences, prime ministers are flanked by public health experts. And governments have set up a dizzying number of expert groups and task forces to examine policy measures to stop the spread of the virus, to formulate strategies to exit the crisis, and even to investigate the government response to the crisis.

But how much influence do these experts actually have over public policies? Do they determine policy responses or are they servants of power for governments seeking to legitimise their political choices?

There is by now an enormous amount of academic work on expert knowledge and policymaking. Still, existing scholarship is surprisingly ill equipped to answer these questions. In my recent article in Policy & Politics, I argue that there are two main reasons for this.

First, existing literature is deeply fragmented. Expertise and policymaking are discussed under multiple headings – ‘evidence-based policymaking’, ‘ideas and politics’, ‘epistemic communities’, ‘professions’, etc. – and these different literatures rarely talk to each other. The fragmented state of the literature is bewildering for anyone interested in understanding the role of expert knowledge in policymaking. The lack of critical discussion across literatures has also left us with a range of concepts and theories that have fundamental flaws and are difficult to study.

Second, existing work – especially the work on evidence-based policymaking – has often granted experts a special status as providers of neutral and apolitical evidence. Experts are not engaged in the dirty business of politics; they are simply informing public policies. The not-so-hidden normative assumption is that the more you listen to experts, the better.

On both counts, research on expertise needs a fundamental rethinking. My recent article in Policy & Politics puts forward some concrete proposals for doing so.

My first proposal is to put the influence of experts at the centre of theory and research. It is time for a ‘normalisation’ of expertise research, bringing it into line with literatures that study the influence of other political actors, such as politicians, interest groups and citizens. This entails seeing experts as one type of actor that provides input in the political system and competes with other actors for influence.

Thinking about the influence of experts would help redirect research on expertise to examine questions of power. It also lends itself to systematic empirical research. While there are inherent challenges in examining influence, political scientists have already developed analytical tools which are readily applicable to studies of the influence of experts.

My second proposal is to think more carefully about how the influence of experts depends on the location of expert knowledge within government bureaucracies. In much existing work, one gets the impression that experts and expert knowledge are free-floating entities. Yet, many experts work in government ministries and agencies, and expert knowledge usually reaches decision-makers through governmental bodies. It is not a coincidence that experts in public health agencies and research bodies are at the forefront of the coronavirus response.

By recognising and foregrounding the political aspects of expertise and context, I hope that both of my proposals can help overcome the current silos in research on expertise, by offering common ground for future research on the policy influence of experts.

This focus on the politics of expertise leads fittingly on to our second featured article by Holger Straßheim entitled Who are behavioural public policy experts and how are they organised globally?. By scrutinising the global expansion and the impact of expert networks in behavioural public policy, the author hopes to contribute to explanations of how policy collectives influence policy-making, gain authority and change the shape of governance.

His main assumption is that the behavioural public policy movement has shifted from a belief-based mode to a practice-based mode in which the production, evaluation and diffusion of behavioural instruments has become the main point of reference. Starting in 2014, this shift gradually happened when the epistemic community that formed the original core of the behavioural public policy movement undermined itself by successfully translating behavioural knowledge into highly different contexts. So instead of a consensual belief system, a rapidly growing instrument constituency took over that derived its influence from Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) as highly effective and self-sustaining methods of scientific and political authorisation.

Today, the principled beliefs and notions of behavioural professionals are highly divergent, Straßheim argues. Yet RCTs shape the science-policy nexus and mobilise a self-perpetuating micro-instrumentalism. Behavioural teams, networks, laboratories across the world may be very different in their underlying belief systems, but they all define themselves by designing and testing behavioural tools. Indeed, it is this agency shift that provides the stark warning with which the article concludes. Experts should be aware of the normative implications of their work – and of the fact that, especially in times of success, the instruments they are proposing might develop a political life of their own.

Continuing in a similar vein, our final article, The expertise of politicians and their role in epistemic communities, asks if it matters if politicians know what they are doing, or not? Authors, Anne Grodem & Jon Hippe argue that complex reforms demand politicians with two types of expertise: topical and political. A politician who has genuine expertise, either because he/she has worked consistently on an issue over time, or because he/she is an expert by education, can provide both. Such figures are extremely valuable in reform processes.  Consequently, the authors conclude that politicians who have expertise in complex issues and work with them systematically are the most likely to get things done.

Johan Christensen is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University, Netherlands.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Johan Christensen (2020) ‘Expert knowledge and policymaking: a multi-disciplinary research agenda‘, Policy & Politics, https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15898190680037 

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