Experts in Global Governance: Powerful Technocrats or Useful Idiots?

Johan Christensen
Assistant Professor, Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University

Synopsis: The two competing narratives about the role of experts in governance raise very different democratic concerns.

Keywords: expertise, technocratic governance, democracy, influence

Experts are seemingly everywhere nowadays. From the natural scientists advising governments through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), via the economists in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) who shape fiscal and monetary policies, to the medical experts in government bureaucracies and advisory bodies who provide politicians with evidence-based advice on how to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The reliance on specialized expertise has become a ‘fact’ of modern political life – making policies is simply not possible without it. This is the case for national policy-making, but even more so for governance at the international level, as scholars like Peter M. Haas have pointed out.

Yet, there are two competing narratives about the role of experts in global governance. The first – the technocracy narrative – argues that experts have become increasingly powerful. Decisions that were previously made by elected leaders have been delegated to expert bureaucracies that are insulated from politics and far removed from regular citizens: the European Commission, the IMF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Medicines Agency (EMA), etc. These are the kind of organizations that the British politician Michael Gove alluded to in his famous claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms”. These bodies have taken the politics out of policy-making: they reduce every issue to technical questions that can best be answered by specialized expertise and evidence. The guiding star for decision-making is no longer what people want but rather what the science says: Are economic policies ‘right’ according to economic theory? Are public health measures based on sound evidence about the spread of disease? As Jens Steffek argues in his latest book, this idea of technocratic governance has been crucially important for the creation of international organizations. This mode of decision-making may also be accompanied by technocratic attitudes among experts, which entail not only a belief in science-based decisions but also a disdain for pluralist politics and citizen input. For instance, in a recent study with Ronen Mandelkern, we show how economists in finance bureaucracies are more likely to hold this kind of technocratic views.

If experts rule, what is left of political equality and citizens’ right to have a say over the policies that affect their lives?

Technocratic governance represents a serious challenge for democracy: If experts rule, what is left of political equality and citizens’ right to have a say over the policies that affect their lives? Why should people even bother to participate in politics and public debate if experts call the shots anyway?

But there is also an alternative narrative about experts in international governance, which we can call the ‘useful idiots’ narrative. In this narrative, experts are powerless rather than powerful. Academics, scientific advisors and expert bureaucracies do not have an independent influence on policy-making. Rather, they are the instruments of political interests. One version of this narrative – prominent in science and technology studies (STS) – has it that the very knowledge offered by expert disciplines is shaped by the political context. Expert knowledge is part of and serves dominant societal discourses: economic science serves to legitimate a neoliberal governance regime and business interests, medical experts further a medicalized approach to health and boost the profits of big pharmaceutical companies, etc. Another version of this narrative centers on the political use of knowledge. Politicians often use expertise symbolically: by setting up expert bodies or appointing scientists to prominent positions they seek to give the impression that policy-making is rational and knowledge-based; they are less interested in the actual advice offered by these experts. Decision-makers also use expert knowledge selectively: in a sea of expert knowledge, they will pick the advice that fits their predefined preferences. If that is the case, expert advice has little influence on the direction of policy. Policy-makers may also orchestrate the advisory process in ways that make experts fall into line, as Annabelle Littoz-Monnet argues in her study of EU bioethics experts.

Decision-makers who falsely present policies as knowledge-based also undermine the ability of citizens to make well-informed voting decisions and hold politicians to account.

The implications of this narrative for democracy are not straightforward. Some draw the conclusion that since experts are simply instruments of political interests, they should be regarded with suspicion and their role in policy-making reduced. Instead, citizen participation and deliberation in decision-making should be expanded. Others, by contrast, see the non-use of knowledge as the democratic problem. Consulting experts strengthens the knowledge basis of democratic policy-making and thereby leads to better decisions. Selective or symbolic use of knowledge undercuts this function. For instance, if political leaders disregard the evidence and only rely on the most optimistic assessments of the effects of their favored policy, it can lead to policy failures that cost money and lives – as the Covid pandemic has illustrated. Decision-makers who falsely present policies as knowledge-based also undermine the ability of citizens to make well-informed voting decisions and hold politicians to account.

In other words, the challenges for democracy depend on which narrative about experts has more truth to it. To be sure, divergent views of whether experts are powerful or powerless partly reflect different theoretical assumptions, for instance about whether experts can be considered autonomous actors. But they also reflect a lack of systematic empirical research on the role of experts and expertise in policy-making. While there is an abundance of theoretical concepts and arguments in the existing literature, empirical investigations that go beyond case studies are few and far between.

If we want to understand the policy role of experts and the challenges it poses for democratic governance, an ambitious research program about experts and policy-making is needed.

On the one hand, we need systematic research on the influence of expert actors in policy-making, as I have argued in a recent essay. Expert influence can be understood as the ability of an expert actor to shape the problem understandings and policy solutions adopted by political decision-makers in line with her knowledge-based beliefs and preferences. Influence is one of the most central issues in the study of decision-making. Yet while the influence of actors like political parties and interest groups have been thoroughly studied, there is remarkably little scholarship on expert influence. Extending investigations of influence to experts means de-mystifying their role in policy-making: It implies seeing experts as one type of actor that provides input in the political system and competes with other actors for influence, rather than granting experts a special status as providers of neutral and apolitical evidence.

…we need to recognize that experts in international governance are neither all-powerful or completely beholden to other actors…

Research on expert influence should target the whole range of institutions through which experts can impact policy, including international expert bureaucracies and permanent and temporary advisory bodies. And it should feature both detailed qualitative studies tracing the influence of experts in specific policy-making processes and quantitative studies relying on largely untapped data sources such as administrative data on the composition of advisory groups and citation and text data from expert reports and policy documents.

On the other hand, we need empirical research on how and to what extent expert advisors are controlled. Studies need to go beyond the generic observation that expert knowledge may be used politically, to examine the actual mechanisms through which policy-makers seek to control experts. Sometimes, this relationship involves a political principal seeking to control an expert agent, such as when member state governments seek to control expert bureaucrats within the IMF. But expert actors may also be subject to both political and bureaucratic control: Expert advisory bodies are often attached to international bureaucracies – e.g. WHO Scientific Advisory Groups or European Commission expert groups – and may therefore face pressures both from member states and from the international administration. In a recent study conducted with Stine Hesstvedt, we theorize and examine empirically the specific mechanisms of political and bureaucratic control of expert advisory groups. The study shows how politicians and bureaucrats consciously seek to steer the work of expert groups both through ex ante mechanisms such as the design of the terms of reference and the selection of members and through ex post mechanisms such as intervening in the discussions of the group. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet points to similar mechanisms in her study of how the European Commission controls its ethics advisory bodies. These are ideas that can be applied to analyze the control of expert advisors across a range of organizations.

In other words, to move the debate about the technocratic challenges to democracy forward we need to recognize that experts in international governance are neither all-powerful or completely beholden to other actors: Experts potentially have autonomy and influence but may at the same time be subject to various degrees of control from decision-makers. Future research on expertise and governance needs to take this into account.

In his research, Johan Christensen investigates the role of expert knowledge in national, European and international governance. He is particularly interested in the power and influence of experts and in the relation between expert advisors and the politicians and bureaucrats that ask for expert input.

This article is part of a commentary series on technocracy and democracy in global governance, organised by the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and Global Governance Centre. To discover more, and to see all contributions in the series, click here.

Photo by geralt on Pixabay

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