Expertise and public policy: a conceptual guide

Higher education Policy Australia

Executive summary:

  • In developing policy and assessing program effectiveness, policy makers are required to make decisions on complex issues in areas that involve significant public risks.
  • In this context, policy makers are becoming more reliant on the advice of experts and the institution of expertise. Expert knowledge and advice in fields as diverse as science, engineering, the law and economics is required to assist policy makers in their deliberations on complex matters of public policy and to provide them with an authoritative basis for legitimate decision making.
  • However, at the same time that reliance on expertise and the demands made of it are increasing, expert claims have never been subject to greater levels of questioning and criticism. This problem is compounded by the growing public demand that non-experts should be able to participate in debates over issues that impact on their lives. However their capacity to understand and contribute to the technical aspects of these debates may be either limited or non-existent.
  • This paper provides a guide to assessing who is and who is not an expert in the technical aspects of public policy debates, by providing a framework of levels of expertise. It also notes the importance of identifying the specific fields of expertise relevant to the issue in question. The main focus is on scientific and technical areas, but the issues raised also apply in other domains.
  • It then examines the problem of how non-experts can evaluate expert claims in complex, technical domains. The paper argues that, in the absence of the necessary technical expertise, the only way that non-experts are able to appraise expertise and expert claims is through the use of social expertise. This is expertise using everyday social judgements that enables them to determine who to believe when they are not in a position to judge what to believe.
  • In this context, the paper suggests policy makers ask a series of questions:

–      can I make sense of the arguments?
–      which experts seems the more credible?
–      who has the numbers on their side?
–      are there any relevant interests or biases? And
–      what are the experts’ track records?

  • By identifying the strengths and limitations of each of these strategies, the paper provides guidance on how each might best be used. It also argues that using them in combination improves their strength and reliability.
  • The role of those who can act as intermediaries between technical experts and non-experts is also examined.
  • The paper makes clear that none of these strategies are without problems, but it postulates that a more systematic approach to how non-experts use social expertise might enhance their ability to become active rather than passive consumers of technical expertise.
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