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How can public servants support expertise and evidence in the age of political populism?

23 April 2020

News and media


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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role that expert technical advice plays in the formulation of public policy advice in a time of crisis. Technical questions regarding the infection and transmission of the novel coronavirus, and the modelling of likely responses measures have underpinned advice prepared by public servants for decision-makers, and subsequent public communications.

This experience of explicitly applying technical expertise in public policy stands somewhat in contrast to broader trends in public administration in recent years in Australia. Expertise has more often been decried as elitist, ineffective or serving vested interests by some politicians, media players and sections of the broader population – and hence has tended to be downplayed in the policy formulation and public communication.

The impact of this underlying trend of scepticism of the role of expertise in public policy was analysed in an article by University of Queensland Professor Brian Head and ANZSOG Research Director Dr Subho Banerjee, ‘Policy expertise and use of evidence in a populist era’. Although the article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the underlying analysis remains relevant to considering how public servants can develop a more robust model for using policy-relevant expertise to address major policy challenges beyond the pandemic. The authors suggest that this can only be done sustainably if the use of expertise is situated within improved democratic decision-making and governance arrangements, that strengthen civic trust and legitimacy.

Professor Head and Dr Banerjee state that trust in public and private institutions had declined since the global financial crisis in 2008, and that Australia had followed the trend despite having escaped the worst impacts of that global economic slowdown.

“The rise of populist and hyper-partisan discourse has influenced political debate and the behaviour of leaders across the political spectrum.

“Populism trades on fanning anxieties, blaming minorities for social problems, and promising quick fixes built on ‘us versus them’ politics. The distinguishing feature of populism, as against a more conventional respect for a democratic mandate, is the view that current public institutions are not trustworthy, and will not deliver the ‘will of the people’ unless they are significantly overhauled. This is encouraged by a political culture of hyper-partisanship.”

The media’s role in the partisan divide

The article stated that research has demonstrated a striking linkage between what the general public accepts as matters of fact and the nominated source presenting the information. This means people tend to believe what they hear from institutions they already feel aligned to. Conversely, people do not trust institutions they believe have been ‘captured’ by the opposing side in the debate.

“With the marketisation of information, new media outlets and subscription channels typically disavow any mission to ‘educate and inform’ the public. The mass media have focused on personalities, augmented civic fears and social conflicts, and fostered cynicism about public life.

“Partisan voices in mass media derive significant authority and credibility with their audience precisely because of their adversarial position with respect to the partisan divide. It is a characteristic feature of such partisan commentary to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of public institutions and independent expertise.

The article found that expert advice was framed as an inherently partisan ‘political weapon’ by a media that was itself partisan

“Even when some limited expert advice is asked for, partisan inclinations encourage politicians to impose ideological limits on ‘acceptable’ advice, and hence dramatically limit its independence. As partisanship intensifies, attacks on the credibility of professionals engaging with ‘the other side’ are amplified, adding to the reputational damage for experts at large.” 

Building a democratic foundation for expertise and evidence

Debate, disagreement and mistrust of rulers have historically been vital for democracies by allowing them to build the institutional balances and accountability mechanisms required to mitigate centralised power and the over-reach of political leaders, however popular.

Professor Head and Dr Banerjee contend that the linked issues of populism, hyper-partisanship and the changing media landscape have led to situations where the contest of policy ideas is portrayed as essentially a contest between respective opinions and assertions.

“In the USA, suspicion of evidence-based inquiry has led to a decline in investment dedicated to policy evaluation and to policy innovation studies.

“Thus, while external expert advice should be respected, for its successful engagement with processes that test the robustness of knowledge, it is also important that expertise is mediated through appropriate social and cultural processes to ensure that it has genuine democratic legitimacy.

“Public servants, therefore, have a critical role to play, subject to ministerial oversight, in attempts to utilise expert technical knowledge to build trust in public governance. This requires consideration of how best to gather and utilise a wide range of technical knowledge as part of developing and implementing sound policy measures, and trying to ensure they are mediated through democratic processes in a way that avoids extreme political pressure and hyper-partisan attack.”

The article notes that the loss of trust has made it harder for governments to make wide-ranging policy changes, especially in areas where benefits of change are spread broadly but thinly while the costs might fall in a much more concentrated manner for smaller groups of people.

“It is difficult for governments to hold the line in promoting the entirety of public policy design, against a myriad of specific critiques against certain elements of it. Of course, this is not particular to Australia – it played out in very similar terms in the US experience in legislating Obamacare, and indeed, in the recent UK travails with regard to a workable Brexit deal. Complex and ‘wicked’ problems are difficult to comprehend and they resist simple solutions. These problems typically evoke contending values and interests, making it difficult for leaders to forge a consensus or broker a trade-off that remains informed by best-available evidence.”

Professor Head and Dr Banerjee state that public servants may need to grapple with public policy questions such as:

How can we bring people together from different values perspectives, to generate a genuine mandate for improvement of policies and services?
How can public common purpose be built, such that reforms are supported as being for the public good?
What assurances can be given to allay the concerns of those who may be disadvantaged, and what can be done to identify the overall benefits?
How is respect for policy-relevant expertise and use of reliable evidence established in the social media age?
How can we have conversations across fragmented social networks, and listen respectfully to people’s aspirations for the future?
How can we reconnect to ideas of trust and duty in public life?

Public servants can best engage with these challenges with a “self-awareness” of how their own sets of values, and incentives, may influence policy-making processes and generate public value.

Expertise remains crucial

Professor Head and Dr Banerjee conclude that expertise cannot be a substitute for democratic judgement but will remain crucial for developing good policy. Public servants will need to find mechanisms through which expert technical knowledge can be mediated through appropriate social processes to seek constructive outcomes that can command democratic legitimacy.

“The linked issues of populism, hyper-partisanship and the changed media landscape have their roots in complex economic, social and political factors. Their impacts on the quality of public governance are far wider than the specific issue of expertise considered in this paper. Nevertheless, policy-relevant expertise remains crucial for addressing complex policy problems.

The article stated that value-based assertions would remain central to the debate in controversial policy areas, but it was still important to establish a strong foundation for varied sources of expert advice to be used.

“The use of expertise must be situated within improved democratic decision-making and governance arrangements to promote the effective use of expertise in highly contested policy contexts. In this context, we consider that there is a significant contribution to be made to complex problem-solving through more open, values-based forms of engagement with stakeholders and experts.

“A more comprehensive (or even more comprehensible) technical knowledge cannot be effective as the primary means to persuade people on matters shaped by differences in substantive values. A science-first approach is somewhat akin to shouting louder, when the messages are not being understood.

Well-structured dialogue involving scientists, resource users and the public, which was informed by the analysis of key information, was crucial to ensuring expertise had a positive impact on policy.

“Such analytic deliberation provides improved information and the trust in it that is essential for information to be used effectively, builds social capital, and can allow for change, and deal with inevitable conflicts well enough to produce consensus on governance.”

The following is a summary of an article – Policy expertise and the use of evidence in a populist era by University of Queensland Professor Brian Head and ANZSOG Research Director Dr Subho Banerjee, which appeared in the Australian Journal of Political Science.