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Reconsidering expertise for policymaking

21 November 2023



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In an era marked by recurrent crises and complex problems, there has been an apparent crisis of confidence in how experts contribute to solving public problems. A paper in the Australian Journal of Public Administration considers this perceived crisis and suggests the contestability of policy advice has been a key shift in policy advisory processes. Contestability can be positively used to test the robustness of policy proposals. However, if the policy debate has no evidentiary standards, the contest is reduced to a clash of opinions and slogans.

Why the perceived crisis?

There are four explanations for the perceived crisis of expert-based policy advisory systems.

  • The policymaking process has become more deeply politicised by the appointment of partisan personnel into key positions.
  • There has been a major diversification in available sources of expert advice beyond the public service.
  • The policy capacity of public bureaucracies has been hollowed out through extensive out-sourcing and use of contracting.
  • These trends have been amplified by populist denigration of experts and by populist political leaders undermining public agencies.

Diversity and contestability of policy knowledge and advice

The traditional sources of policy knowledge and expertise have been government departments. More recently, policymaking processes have operated in a fluid and pluralised ecosystem of evidence producers and policy advocates. Diversification in the sources (supply) of policy knowledge and advice has entailed a significant externalisation of policy advice beyond the public sector.

Non-government suppliers of policy ideas include business lobbies, consultants, think tanks, community advocacy groups, university research centres, and international organisations. Diversification also entails competition for attention and credibility in a marketplace of ideas and interests. Given this contestability of policy ideas, governments can select options from a diverse menu, reflecting the values and interests of various stakeholders. Policy advice is also increasingly being politicised by reliance on partisan sources outside government agencies, including political advisors in ministerial offices.

Threats and challenges to ‘best-available’ expert knowledge

The diversification in sources of policy advice and the partisan climate of policy debates have posed challenges for the role of expertise. There are several challenges for policy advisors who wish to use ‘best-available’ evidence. These include:

  • the impact of multiple crises and the capacity to plan for such crises
  • the spread of misinformation and disinformation
  • the populist assertion of anti-elitist opinions as policy-relevant knowledge
  • the political need for rapid decisions with a corresponding lack of time for long-term policy development.

The prevalence of opinion-based ideological commentary in policy has increasingly displaced reasoned argumentation. The question can be asked whether expert policy advisory systems can cope effectively with claims based on misinformation and opinion.

Strengthening evidence-informed policy advisory systems

Policy capacity deficits pose risks for the quality and legitimacy of governments and their policy advisory systems. Two approaches have been identified to better respond to the challenges to evidence-informed policymaking. The first approach strongly reaffirms the need for evidence-informed policymaking in liberal democracies and protects the special role of expert knowledge. The second approach addresses the legitimacy deficit by broadening the knowledge base and by valuing the perspectives and lived experience of citizens and stakeholders.

Recognising the positive value of multiple forms of expertise and ‘lived experience’ in policymaking serves as a counterweight to populism and to technocratic decision-making. The expertise of multiple stakeholders can support and legitimise innovative learning processes that improve the creativity of evidence-informed policymaking. One approach to policy innovation is the establishment of policy labs which use experimental design methods involving a range of experts and stakeholders. Another form of open and inclusive process is citizen juries which are increasingly used to address contentious issues.

The bottom line

Policy advisory systems continue to rely on technical and stakeholder expertise, but the breadth and diversity of sources for policy ideas have increased. However, the authoritative standing of experts has been damaged by their perceived inability to help governments solve complex problems, and their credibility has been undermined by the strident opponents of respectful evidence-informed debate. Mistrust, misinformation, and cynicism have flourished in this environment.

The main driver of change has been the growing contestability of advice. This contestation in policy ideas has been amplified by populist politics and media sensationalism. The challenge is to welcome a contest of policy ideas while maintaining standards for the quality of evidence and policy reasoning.

Want to read more? 

Reconsidering expertise for public policymaking: The challenges of contestability – Brian Head, Australian Journal of Public Administration, September 2023

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Published Date: 21 November 2023