Response to ‘Trust the experts’

The public can be experts in their own right, argues Duncan O’Leary in response to Allen Simpson.

It is a constant refrain that the public are shut out of politics, so it is refreshing to learn, via Allen Simpson’s Demos Quarterly essay, that at least some of the elite feels locked out too. ‘The experts no longer have the floor, if they ever did’ Allen argues, ‘consecutive failures of expertise over half a century… coupled with the wider democratisation of information and education has left experts mistrusted as just another vested interest.’

‘WHAT WORKS’

The first question this raises is empirical: is this is true? We live, in rhetoric at least, in an era of evidence-based policy making: ‘what matters is what works’. Allen notes that MPs have often not read the legislation that they are voting on. This may be true, but the scope for experts to influence the detail of Parliamentary Bills is surely greater than ever.

As standard, draft Bills are now put out for consultation, allowing for experts and practitioners to be brought into the policy making process. Every government department now has a chief scientific advisor to scrutinise its work. Randomised control trials are gradually being adopted by more and more departments. The Cabinet Office has given its blessing to a new set of ‘what works centres’, which are charged with scrutinising £200 billion of public spending. The internet allows for public clamours and moral panics, but also scrutiny and fact-checking like never before.

Of course, mistakes are still made. But the problem is that, in the complex world that Allen describes, it is often far from clear what does actually work – even to the experts. Ring-fencing the retail and investment functions of banks may be futile or even foolish, but there is no shortage of experts arguing for it. Perhaps fiscal stimulus would have trumped austerity, but there were experts on either side of the debate. The problem is not so much that experts do not have a seat at the table, it is more that we don’t always know which ones to listen to.

The bigger question is where the balance between expert judgement and public opinion ought to lie. This question underlies the growing frustration, expressed by commentators on the Left and Right, about politicians pandering to how people ‘feel’ as opposed to responding to how things actually are.

MISPERCEPTIONS

Allen cites public misperceptions about fraud in the benefit system as one example of this: on average the public estimate that of every £100 spent on benefits, £24 is claimed fraudulently, when the government’s own estimate puts the figure at just 70p. The figure is taken from an Ipsos MORI/Royal Statistical Society study last year.

Importantly, though, what the Ipsos/RSS study also found is that the public’s definition of fraud differs from the government version. When people were asked what they considered benefit fraud to entail, they included people having children in order to claim more benefits, or individuals claiming despite not having paid tax in the past. ‘Fraud’ was not used in the technical sense, but as shorthand for a feeling of unfairness.

In one sense this serves to reinforce Allen’s point: opinion-led clampdowns on benefit fraud will miss the point if what people are actually worried about does not even qualify. Politics should not follow public opinion uncritically or unthinkingly.

However, the example also illustrates the need to listen more carefully, rather than simply dismiss public opinion altogether. The concern over fraud is really a concern about non-reciprocity, expressed in different language. This brings us back to politics – what kind of welfare system do we want – not just empirics – what does the data tell us. But that important political discussion is missed if we just attribute public attitudes to ignorance.

Of course the public will get it wrong on important points of information. Politicians should be prepared to point this out rather than just nod along. But this needs to be part of a genuine dialogue with the public, in which each is open to the possibility of learning something from the other.

Further, the experts must recognise that even public misestimates of the scale of problems can be signposts to substantive points of principle. These can and sometimes should be argued against, but identifying and acknowledging the principle is as important as correcting people’s facts.

MEANS AND ENDS

Finally, there is the issue of whether the means and ends of policy and can be separated as easily as Allen hopes. ‘Once the goal of the policy is established’, he writes, ‘the data are clear on the most effective course. Politicians run in to trouble when they forget the distinction.’

Sometimes this is incontrovertibly true. Many will share the frustration at policy initiatives that are ‘doomed to success’, regardless of their ability to achieve the intended results.

However, it is often the case that means and ends cannot be neatly separated. Allen gives the example of criminal justice policy, identifying the political question at stake: ‘What is the primary concern of the justice system, supporting the victim who already exists, or preventing the potential future one?’

The problem is that whichever of these goals is primary, they must still be continually weighed against one another in practice. Banning books in prisons may serve as an effective punishment, but are we happy with its effect on prisoners’ rehabilitation, let alone their basic dignity? This is a question about means which brings the discussion about ends back into focus.

Rarely can a single, simple policy objective be established, which allows for politicians to take an entirely neutral position on how it is delivered. Very often policies must balance competing goals. This makes the practical political. Experts have an important part in that discussion, but their role is to inform it, not to imagine that the data can answer the question alone.

CONCLUSION

Allen’s rallying cry is that accuracy must not become subordinate to democratic legitimacy in politicians’ order of priorities – the two deserve equal weight. On this he is surely right. There is nothing noble about policies which do not work, or which are premised on falsehoods. The experts deserve their seat at the table – and are needed both to inform decision makers and to help hold them to account.

But there is only so far that we should go in trying to ‘take the politics out’ of many issues. Often that simply is not possible, no matter what the experts might wish.