Expertise and public policy: don’t just ask the experts

Parliament house flag post

Expertise and public policy: don’t just ask the experts

Posted 22/10/2013 by Matthew Thomas




In recent years the number of highly technical policy issues considered by the Australian Parliament has increased. This means members and senators are obliged to grapple with the technical issues associated with all manner of topics, some of which have scientific or technological aspects.
 
But in order to reach a considered position and to have an authoritative basis for decision making, members and senators must achieve some grasp of these technical issues.
 
Thus, members and senators often find themselves in a difficult position—one that is shared by other non-experts: that is, that their ability to understand and reach a considered, informed judgement on the technical aspects of many debates is either limited or non-existent.


In this context, members and senators are, of necessity, reliant on the advice of experts and their expertise in areas as diverse as science, engineering, the law and economics.

This poses some problems, not least because in areas of public policy that have highly technical aspects it is frequently not clear who the relevant experts are. This situation is further complicated by the fact that experts often disagree and, with an increasingly educated and information-rich public, their claims are often contested.

In this environment there is clearly some need for a guide to expertise, such as that presented in the new Parliamentary Library Research Paper, Expertise and public policy: a conceptual guide.

The paper provides guidance in three main ways. First, it gives some assistance in determining just who should be listened to in relation to the technical aspects of debates. Second, it indicates what members and senators—and non-experts more generally—are and are not able to do where it comes to assessing expertise and expert claims. And, third, it identifies ways in which non-experts’ ability to evaluate expertise and expert claims might be improved.

This FlagPost briefly considers the question, who is an expert in relation to the technical aspects of policy debates? But before doing so, it is necessary to clarify just what is expertise.

What is expertise?


The paper draws on the work of sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans to argue that expertise is an objective and tangible phenomenon. That is, it is the real and substantive possession of groups, with individuals gaining their expertise through their membership of these groups.

Although expertise is acquired through a social process—experts become experts through being socialised in a particular field of study—individuals may possess expertise regardless of whether or not others think they do.

As an objective and tangible phenomenon, expertise enables people to understand and do things that they could not understand or do before they gained their expertise. Further, people with expertise are able to do things that most other people cannot do.

Who are the experts?


The paper identifies a range of different forms of expertise, but argues that it is only those people who possess what can be called ‘interactional’ or ‘contributory’ expertise in an area who are able to fully contribute to the technical part of debates in that area. Both of these forms of expertise entail relevant experience in an area and not simply the accumulation of knowledge or learning of facts.

Interactional expertise involves mastery of the language of a specialist area, without actually being able to ‘do’ the activity. An example of this form of expertise might be a science journalist and blogger who is not a practicing scientist but, having been immersed in a particular field, is completely fluent in how it works and is able to communicate this to others. Contributory expertise, on the other hand, is the ability to do the activity with a high level of competence, and to actually make a contribution to the specialist area.

The paper shows that non-experts, because of their lack of specialist expertise, generally cannot contribute to the technical part of public policy debates: they are not in a position to judge what to believe. However, using what the paper describes as social expertise—that is, the sort of judgement that we use on a day-to-day basis in relation to friends, acquaintances, politicians etc.—non-experts are potentially able to judge who ought to be believed. Using social expertise, a non-expert might thus be able to make technical judgements about experts themselves and which of them ought to be believed.

There are a number of different strategies through which a non-expert may use their social expertise to evaluate experts’ credibility. The non-expert could consider questions such as does the expert seem credible? do they have the numbers on their side? are there any relevant interests or biases? and, what is the expert’s track record? Each of these strategies will be considered in further detail in a subsequent FlagPost, which examines the problem of how non-experts can go about deciding which expert to believe when they disagree in their judgements.


*Co-authored with Luke Buckmaster

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


 


Thank you for your comment. If it does not require moderation, it will appear shortly.

Add your comment

[Click to expand]

We welcome your comments, or additional information which is relevant to a post. These can be added by clicking on the ‘Add your comment’ option above. Please note that the Parliamentary Library will moderate comments, and reserves the right not to publish comments that are inconsistent with the objectives of FlagPost. This includes spam, profanity and personal abuse, as well as comments that are factually incorrect or politically partisan. We will close comments after three months.




Captcha
Generate a new image
Type characters from the image:

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print

FlagPost

Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament


Parliamentary Library Logo showing Information Analysis & Advice

Archive

Syndication

Tagcloud

Refugees asylum climate change immigration Australian foreign policy parliament social security welfare policy elections welfare reform school education health financing higher education Australian Defence Force emissions trading indigenous Australians women private health insurance people trafficking illicit drugs gambling health reform federal election 2010 United Nations Employment Asia disability income management Middle East Medicare Australian Bureau of Statistics statistics sport health forced labour federal budget Afghanistan Industrial Relations Carbon Pricing Mechanism politics dental health United States aid child protection environment poker machines Australia in the Asian Century Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency steroids World Anti-Doping Agency National Disability Insurance Scheme detention aged care 43rd Parliament slavery health system Law Enforcement Australian Federal Police Criminal Law Fair Work Act Australian Public Service governance labour force people smuggling transport debt taxation international relations constitution New Zealand food WADA Australian Crime Commission pharmaceutical benefits scheme pensions public service reform children's health Aviation foreign debt gross debt net debt defence capability parliamentary procedure Senate Senators and Members ALP ASADA Newstart Parenting Payment multiculturalism Youth Allowance sea farers Higher Education Loan Program HECS federal state relations accountability Papua New Guinea youth paid parental leave same sex relationships corruption coal seam gas customs planning federal election 2013 Australian Electoral Commission doping OECD crime health risks International Women's Day Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling sex slavery Special Rapporteur Northern Territory Emergency Response social policy welfare ASIO intelligence community terrorist groups Australian Security Intelligence Organisation carbon tax mining High Court military history electoral reform employer employee renewable energy regional unemployment fishing European Union Federal Court family assistance skilled migration banking United Nations Security Council Australian economy forestry food labelling vocational education and training Drugs UK Parliament welfare systems Indonesia social media children Constitutional reform local government codes of conduct terrorist financing homelessness Parliamentary remuneration money laundering Trafficking in Persons Report energy science social inclusion human rights paternalism Australian Secret Intelligence Service sexual abuse terrorism World Trade Organization Australia public health China housing affordability bulk billing political parties water productivity health policy Governor-General US economy trade unions domestic violence export liquefied natural gas foreign bribery firearms question time speaker superannuation public housing election results by-election expertise public policy climate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leadership voting Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry regulation Pacific Islands reserved seats research and development new psychoactive substances synthetic drugs UNODC carbon markets animal health middle class welfare ADRV Census Indigenous constitutional recognition of local government referendum consumer laws PISA competition policy royal commission US politics violence against women language education baby bonus Leaders of the Opposition citizen engagement policymaking Australia Greens servitude Trafficking Protocol forced marriage Population rural and regional mental health alcohol entitlements ministries Hung Parliament social citizenship maritime Iran transparency ANZUS regional students school chaplains federal budget 2011-12 salary Medicare Locals primary care Building the Education Revolution early childhood education Middle East; national security; terrorism social services Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor) Bill 2013 online grooming sexual assault of minors ACT Assembly national security smoking plain packaging tobacco cigarettes Asia; Japan; international relations Work Health and Safety Migration; asylum seekers; regional processing China; United States; international relations fiscal policy Racial Discrimination Act; social policy; human rights; indigenous Australians Foreign policy Southeast Asia Israel Palestine asylum refugees immigration political finance donations foreign aid disability employment Economics efficiency human rights; Racial Discrimination Act employment law bullying asylum seekers Animal law; food copyright Australian Law Reform Commission industry peace keeping contracts workplace policies same-sex marriage disorderly conduct integrity retirement Parliament House standing orders prime ministers election timetable sitting days First speech defence budget submarines workers financial sector Canada Somalia United Kingdom GDP Tasmania world heritage political engagement leave loading Trade; tariffs; safeguards; Anti-dumping public interest disclosure whistleblowing Productivity Commission limitation period universities Ireland cancer gene patents genetic testing suspension of standing and sessional orders live exports infant mortality honorary citizen railways disciplinary tribunals standard of proof World Health Organisation arts international students skilled graduate visas temporary employment visas apologies roads Italy national heritage NHMRC nutrition anti-dumping Rent Assistance obesity evidence law sacrament of confession US presidential election international days DFAT UN General Assembly deregulation Regulation Impact Statements administrative law small business Breaker Morant regional engagement social determinants of health abortion Members suspension workplace health and safety marine reserves hearing TAFE Victoria astronomy resources sector YMCA youth parliament Korea fuel rebate Australian Greens presidential nomination Racial Discrimination Act political parties preselection solar hot water Financial Action Taskforce Horn of Africa peacekeeping piracy Great Barrier Reef Stronger futures political financing political education Social Inclusion Board early childhood National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care Murray-Darling Basin sanctions Norway hospitals republic President Barack Obama Presidential visits qantas counselling Korean peninsula Work Choices biosecurity hendra environmental law federalism federation preselection therapeutic goods Therapeutic Goods Administration plebiscites computer games pests suicide nuclear COAG Ministerial Councils floods ADHD stimulant medication advertising electricity extradition standards conscience votes poverty preventative health rural health coastal erosion Parliamentary Budget Office NATO work-life balance

Show all
Show less