Trust the experts

Expertise plays too small a role in our policy making and public debate, argues Allen Simpson.

Anyone who has spent time in a policy think tank seminar will, at some point, have heard the keynote speaker say: ‘Firstly, I am not an expert on this subject’. When you think about it, that is a curious statement. Why not? Why are you talking about it then? It is a great surprise – and a telling one – that more seminars don’t end at this point.

Illustration by Modern Activity

Illustration by Modern Activity

Sometimes the speaker is a practicing politician, sometimes an eminent scholar, and sometimes a journalist; almost never are they the most knowledgeable person in the room. At best the result is partial debate which retreads some of the more obvious foothills of a subject. Often it means a further congealing of policy opinion around whatever set of assumptions currently holds sway. In very few instances is the sum total of wisdom on a subject advanced.

These seminars are emblematic of our political decision-making processes as a whole. The experts no longer have the floor, if they ever did. Consecutive failures of expertise over half a century – from Thalidomide to the financial crisis – coupled with the wider democratisation of information and education has left experts mistrusted as just another vested interest.

This should concern us all. It implies that specific failures of expertise require the general rejection of expert participation in the policy process and in public life.

There is also a broader issue here about an idealised view of the disinterested expert, whose knowledge is uncoupled from any value judgments. This expert seldom existed in the past and, outside purely technical areas, is even rarer today. Experts are often advocates and ‘practitioners’ too. We need, therefore, not only a renewed acknowledgement of the value of the expert but also a more realistic view of the worldliness of experts.

The purpose of this essay is simple; to assert that the experts will be right more often than the non-experts, that policy making should privilege expertise and experts far more than is currently the case, moreover we should not be concerned about the democratic implications of doing so.

Three arguments against expertise in policy making

1. Self-interest

The anthropologist turned financial journalist Gillian Tett often describes the financial crisis using the metaphor of the pre-reformation Church. Bankers, she argues, are similar to priests carefully guarding the obscurantist power of their Latin. They avoid scrutiny by hiding behind complexity, much of which could be stripped away with little loss of efficiency.

Her view illustrates a common argument against a full voice for expertise in policy making, that holders of expert knowledge will use the inherent asymmetry of understanding to their own benefit. It is not without value as an analysis. Finance is no different from any other tribe; it enjoys the sense of exceptionalism which comes from a shared glossary of gleefully obscure acronyms and slang.

Few people or organisations make arguments against their interests and, like all of us, experts can conflate self-interest and the general interest. Any well supported interest group will have professional communicators whose job it is to affect public policy and whose existence can look rather like undue influence. This is true for unions, corporates and NGOs alike. Although very few participants in a policy debate will be consciously aiming to deceive, the policy maker is left with the seemly impossible challenge of making distinctions between the advocacy of special interest groups and legitimate expert insight.

An argument for rejecting expert insight on this basis is an argument that the cost of excluding technical knowledge is outweighed by the benefit of avoiding ‘capture’. This is an attractive but misguided position.

Hopefully it is uncontroversial to assert that an expert will have greater access to knowledge on their specific subject, however narrow, than people who are not expert. In most areas of human endeavour that expertise sits with practitioners. With that in mind it seems reasonable to use the terms practioner, expert and expertise largely interchangeably.

Many areas of modern public policy are so technical that the only people with the ability to fully understand the issues are the people likely to be directly affected, often for the worse. It is inevitable that expert-practitioners will engage most strongly when their interests are at stake, but it is a failure of logic to assume that their arguments are flawed because they are self-interested. To be self-interested does not automatically imply that your interests run counter to those of other interest groups, or those of society more generally.

It is also a failure of logic to suggest that because expertise fails, non-experts are best placed to pick up the pieces. It would be patently absurd to say: ‘my plumber flooded my kitchen, I should call a florist to fix it’. Any rational person would get the plumber back, or get a new one.

The wave of post crisis financial reform offers us a recent example. Politicians across the world have responded to the 2008 crash by calling for large, complex banking operations to be split into smaller entities whose failure would not cause a systemic risk. There has also been legislation of greater or lesser force to require the retail banking ‘utility’ arms to be separated from the wholesale ‘casino’ divisions.

The intuited view is that to do so will make the system safer since simple organisations are less likely to fail, and would not need to be rescued if they do. In truth, the opposite is the case – analysis of the crisis shows that it was smaller and ‘monoline’ simple business model institutions which were measurably more likely to fail, and fail en masse, creating systemic risk. Counter-intuitively, disaggregating the banking industry introduces more risk into the markets. This was clear to specialists in the area at an early stage in the crisis response, but policy makers were not interested. The florists were left to fiddle desperately with the pipes.

There are countless other examples from a financial reform policy platform which was driven as much by intuition, and at times anger, as by careful and expert analysis. The ability of the industry to make its case was significantly weakened by two factors; first, the clear impact of the policy on banks, second an entirely understandable loss of moral standing from the financial crisis. The fundamental direction of the policy was set by public intuition, and expertise was relegated to making discrete comments on how it should be implemented.

It is hard to feel that the post-crisis reformers fully understand the laws which they have passed or in many cases have even read them. The opinion of a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission on the 2500-page US Dodd-Frank Act is worth quoting at length:

All we can be certain of is that no one in Congress or the administration has actually read the entire bill…Passing legislation without understanding its contents is akin to allowing inmates to run the asylum. Only congressional staffers and paid lobbyists know what’s in the bill, and perhaps only specific provisions. In a bill this large, dealing with subjects this complex, all the rest of us know are the sound bites prepared by the shepherding committees.

Regardless of whether an argument is against the common good or merely self-interested, the complexity of modern policy often means that accurate decisions are impossible without the expert-practitioner view. Finance is complicated principally by calculus not terminology. Pharmacology is opaque because of the chemistry not sophistry. They cannot be adequately regulated without deep involvement by practitioners themselves. Our choice is clear; the less we legislate with the involvement of experts, the more we legislate from a position of ignorance.

In his essay ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’, Roland Barthes writes about ‘the old obscurantist myth according to which ideas are noxious if they are not controlled by “common sense” and “feeling”. Knowledge is evil, they both grow on the same tree.’ Policy which runs counter to common sense or dominant assumptions is mistrusted – if the data does not fit the emotion, reject the data. As Barthes puts it: ‘I do not understand, therefore you are an idiot’.

2. Wise crowds

A second argument made against expertise is that the demos is able to make prescient and accurate judgments itself, at least when certain conditions are met, thus removing the need for experts. James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds argues that a mass of individually considered views will fall around a mean average very close to the true answer. The crowd’s view will form a bell curve with the right answer in the middle.

Surowiecki’s book is compelling, but its application within public policy is necessarily limited. He opens the book with the famous anecdote about a fairground crowd’s entries in a guess the bull’s weight competition averaging to almost exactly the right answer. This example is of a particular sort – the crowd all have access to a reasonable source of data (they have seen the bull), and in a statistical sense guesses should form a bell curve of some form since we can intuit that the bull is neither weightless nor enormously heavy.

Economics offers some applied examples of when crowds are wise which move beyond the anecdotal. But as Surowiecki himself emphasises the whole approach relies on crowds having reasonable access to the data; that these data are ‘true’; and that independence of thought is possible. The more complex an issue, the less likely these criteria will be met.

Most policy issues are mediated to both public and policy makers though media sources. These sources are limited by space, expertise, bias, and access to data for the journalists themselves. Increased connectivity of both crowd and media creates a significant feedback loop which makes individualism in decision making impossible. Information is presented to the crowd with a judgment implicitly or explicitly embedded within it.

To offer some evidence of this problem in a policy context, 2013 work by the Royal Statistical Society showed that the average public perception of the level of benefit fraud was wrong by a factor of 34, teen pregnancy by 25, and the non-White population by a factor of nearly three. On politically contested questions, the crowd’s guesses are wholly inaccurate.

Will Hutton argues that ‘when crowd decisions emerge of our own aggregated free will…when values are involved, [they are] decent’. That may of course be true, but it implies that there is an understood ‘decent’ decision to be made; in other words, it gives you an answer which is already known. Even setting to one side the philosophical difficulties in this position it is less a decision making mechanism and more a statement of probability. I would imagine Hutton would reject the crowd’s wisdom when it strays too far from his particular conception of decency.

If in theory Surowieckian crowds can be an effective decision making mechanism, in practice the conditions required for them to exist are not present in a meaningful way. Shared data sources, editorialising media and the increasing speed with which opinion is shared memetically within modern society can still – in contrast to the view of Douglas Carswell and others – make a crowd into a mob.

3. Democracy

Another common argument relates to the democratic implications of privileging expertise. To many people, democracy has come to imply not only ‘one person, one vote’ and the regular, peaceful removal of governments but a deeply held view that one citizen’s opinion is as valuable as any others’, regardless of relative expertise.

As a society we are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of limiting the democratic principle. But we are a representative rather than direct democracy: we are not raising our hands around a campfire.

Our system asserts three principle values. The first value is an agreed mechanism for selecting rulers and demonstrating consent. Second, is establishing limits for the actions of those rulers, and therefore legitimacy. Last is to deliver policy which is effective and ethical. The question of whether a policy is based on accurate assumptions about the world is distinct from whether it is either legitimate or consensual.

We generally apply the values in a particular order. First, we ask whether a decision legitimately sits inside the public sphere. If it meets this test we progress to the second, whether there is democratic consent for the decision about this public realm issue. Only third do we ask whether a decision is accurate.

We should be concerned by this architecture. The question of accuracy in decision-making must instead be seen as ranking pari passu with democratic consent, both equally important considerations once the question of legitimacy has been addressed. A poor decision is as unwelcome as an illiberal or undemocratic one.

Bringing experts and practitioners in as participants in the policy process is entirely in the spirit of our system of government and far more likely to promote accurate decisions.

The hermetic cave

The policy community in the UK has the characteristic of a hermetically sealed cave. A common career path for a senior adviser or politician will often include time as a parliamentary assistant, think tank researcher, and perhaps pressure group policy officer. It is increasingly less common for inhabitants of the cave to have prior careers or technical training especially within their area of focus. People enter the cave early and rarely stray too far from it.

It would be unfair to suggest that the quality of the people in the cave has decreased over time – there was no golden age of expertise. In fact, the modern competitive civil service has become more accessible to those with a technical background rather than less. PPE and classics graduates now mingle with trained mathematicians and scientists. But the extent of this expertise has not grown at the same pace as the complexity of the world. Regulators often bemoan this handicap; no matter the pace at which they hire in knowledge of the industry they are regulating, industry hires more – and better.

Regardless, it is unavoidable that the atomic half-life of expertise grows shorter in a complex world. If a person moves into politics or Whitehall from a practitioner role, they will likely find their knowledge out of date sooner rather than later. The effect is perhaps worsened by the human inclination to go ‘native’ in any institution.

The issue could be addressed by greater fluidity between private and public sectors, to allow for the steady regeneration of expertise. Newspapers have tended to take the view that fluidity of this sort breeds cronyism and capture; Private Eye in particular delights in pointing out where prestige hires into the Cave have had the misfortune to have pre-existing expertise in their field.

Whitehall departments are also now asked to undertake far deeper oversight and engagement with policy areas than was the case even twenty years ago, but in the words of a former Treasury policy official: ‘we are all smart, but we move on every two years. There is no continuity in role so we cannot really do the job we are asked to do.’

So the issue is this: where the Cave has tried to attract practitioner expertise from outside, it has often been of poor quality. Where they have tried to develop expertise from within, the nature of the career structure has undermined it.

One political communications agency undertook an analysis of the inhabitants of the Cave known as Special Advisers – the senior counsellors to front rank politicians. They came to the conclusion that across the major parties, around one in five Special Advisers could be considered to have significant prior experience or qualification in their policy area. A similar glance at the current Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet suggests even fewer of the politicians themselves can claim expertise.

One value of this apprenticeship for future political leaders is to engender a deep understanding of the workings of the policy process itself. This is an often overlooked advantage of professionalised politics. Regardless of their experience in other fields, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Chancellor and his Shadow all served time as senior advisers. Tony Blair once observed that the only Government job he ever held was Prime Minister; the new generation can claim rather more experience.

However the weakness of this form of monoculture is obvious; it tends, as in any institution, towards confirmation bias and is an inadequate means of bringing technical knowledge into the decision making process. It is a wider problem than a lack of narrow expertise on capital requirements or the conservation of great crested newts: it implies general ignorance of whole areas of human endeavour. Business, economics, science, law and mathematics are all obscure to much of the Cave. Criminal justice, education, and military policy elude others.

The former Special Adviser Dominic Cummings says of the problem that:

Most politicians, officials and advisers operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science…the skills and approach to problems of our best mathematicians, scientists and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions.

People raised in the cave will also often have a learned mistrust of people outside of it. This leads to the purity problem where governments and the Civil Service perceive that their policy proposal is an elegant solution to a problem, and approach the consultation phase with a view to defending it against the barbarity of special interest. It is unclear whether the people attempting to distinguish between self-interest and legitimate insight are capable of doing so.

This is one of the reasons the current conception of the problem of diversity within political parties is so unsatisfying. It really only extends a monochromatic picture across gender and race lines, doing nothing to address uniformity of experience or expertise. Worrying about the socioeconomic makeup of Parliament is a minority pursuit. Most people, indeed almost everybody, will never be a member of the House of Commons. It is a vanishingly small group who will even have the potential to do so. For almost every person alive, the quality of the decision making (and its impact on their own lives) is a considerably more pressing question.

That is not to say of course that achieving a representative House is anything other than an inherent good, or that it cannot be beneficial to optimum decision making. But a poor decision taken by a representative sample of the public is materially the same as a poor decision taken by an unrepresentative one. The legislature should be able to both reflect the people and serve them effectively.

Why it matters

The question of course is whether it matters that modern politics places such a low premium on expertise. It is possible to make a reasonable argument that a political leader is there to set a broad goal and to manage the process of its delivery. They are not intended to be technical experts or practitioners.

But these conceptual questions are often inseparable from the applied questions of delivery. One very quickly moves beyond the aim of reducing crime, or income inequality towards the rather more taxing question of how?

In his book How to be a Minister, Gerald Kaufman observes that ‘it is not always feasible to translate a line in a manifesto into meaningful action.’ He goes on to recount a tale about a policy to rationalise planning law. To his frustration, all manner of groups sprang forward with alterations, amendments and objections. He simply couldn’t pick through it all to reach a solution. This could be seen as a classic example of expert special interest groups preventing legislation being passed.

But that ignores an obvious point. If the objections were spurious, they could have been discounted and the measure passed. If they are accurate, the legislation shouldn’t be passed in that form. The fault is with the minister, not the outside interests. To argue otherwise is to state that a bad law is better than a law constructed plurally.

This is the explicit role of a policy maker – not to be a philosopher king, but Solomon, understanding and judging between the evidence in front of him. As a result of his lack of expert understanding Kaufman had proposed a policy which did not survive scrutiny.

The question of delivery is an empirical one. This is particularly visible where the data are counter intuitive, or simply counter to received wisdom.

To offer an example, criminal justice data are rather liberal in nature. They show that non-custodial sentences are less likely to result in recidivism than custodial ones, and that prison is closely linked to an escalation in the severity of an offender’s behaviour. Conversely, data also show that victim outcomes are enhanced by feeling that justice is served by a harsh sentence (a sense of participation in sentencing has a similarly positive effect).

From the position of the politician, this raises an interesting moral question. Is the goal of prison to provide justice to the victim, or to reduce the overall number of victims? What is the primary concern of the justice system, supporting the victim who already exists, or preventing the potential future one?

It doesn’t however raise a question about the right policy lever. Once the goal of the policy is established, the data are clear on the most effective course. Politicians run into trouble when they forget the distinction.

A policy maker should be a postivist by temperament. Once a preferred outcome is identified, the route to it must be defined by the reality of the world as it is, not as we wish it were. We may believe that prison discourages reoffending, but the evidence shows that not to be the case.

Expertise will not always be right, and intuition will not always be wrong. But it appears likely that expertise will be right more often than not, and certainly more often than intuition.


There has never been a time when our system of government gathered the finest minds in the country together to make decisions on our behalf. The greatest leaders from our history books were brilliant generalists, skilled in the arts of leadership and government. But as complexity of the world is deepening and widening, the sum total of it that any one of us alone can understand with any degree of accuracy shrinks.

We cannot possibly expect to make optimum decisions without bringing genuine expertise and practioner insight into the ‘Hermetic Cave’ of policy making. Despite some moves in this direction the complexity of the world continues to run ahead of the Cave’s ability to understand it.

It is evident that high quality generalists are needed to assess expert opinion and make decisions between competing claims, but they must be encouraged to acknowledge the limits of their understanding and re-engage with expertise rather than make policy in a vacuum. To do so elevates politics.

We should be unconvinced by any of our representatives who resist expertise. They are making one of two fraudulent claims; either that expertise is to be rejected on categorical grounds or that they are not capable of distinguishing it from practitioners’ self-interest. The former is of little intellectual merit. The latter is an admission of incompetence.

This is not just a passing concern. Society will survive the impact of poor policy even if the costs are sometimes high. But the belief that expertise – and by extension truth – are secondary values in politics is the mark of a kind of monstrous unreason, the final logic of which is madness. We cannot cede to politicians the right to define what is true, or we cede all rights.