21 April 2011

Politicians Who Fail to Understand Policymaking

I have a new column up at Bridges, and it is a bit more hard hitting than my usual quarterly perspective.  In it I explain that we should be a bit forgiving when politicians don't have the same level of knowledge as experts, as they can't be experts in everything.  However, we should be far less forgiving when politicians show that they don't understand the mechanisms of policy.  Here is an excerpt:
[I]t should be far less worrisome that the public or policy makers do not understand this or that information that experts may know well. What should be of more concern is that policy makers appear to lack an understanding of how they can tap into expertise to inform decision making. This situation is akin to flying blind.

Specialized expertise typically does not compel particular decisions, but it does help to make decisions more informed. This distinction lies behind Winston Churchill's oft-cited advice that science should be "on tap, but not on top." Effective governance does not depend upon philosopher kings in governments or in the populace, but rather on the use of effective mechanisms for bringing expertise into the political process.

It is the responsibility - even the special expertise - of policy makers to know how to use the instruments of government to bring experts into the process of governance.
Read the whole thing here and feel free to come back and discuss, debate or challenge.


  1. Hi, Roger, Happy Easter-tide.

    The Gummer / BSE example, which you say ‘undercut’ expert advisory processes – as a matter of fact I don’t think that’s right. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/16/newsid_2913000/2913807.stm , dated May 16th 1990 carries quotes from the government’s Chief Medical Officer stating that beef was entirely safe to eat at that time, suggesting that Gummer was, in a perhaps somewhat theatrical fashion, following expert advice. On these type of issues (SARS, HIV, swine flu) policy-makers, imho, always follow expert advice as they would dangerously expose their own backsides if they did not do so (however much I sometimes wish they would tell alarmist advisers to take a running jump, for example on swine flu).

    Expert advice, now there’s an issue in itself. Malthus was an expert? When Carter went on national television in 1979 to warn your good citizens of a coming and inevitable energy crisis, I assume he had taken at least some expert advice. The problem was, on energy prices, that the experts weren’t right. Matt Ridley’s recent WSJ piece amusingly reminds us about correlation/causation – the elderly who shop daily live longer than those who shop weekly it seems, the conclusion being drawn that shopping prevents ill-health rather than the obvious possibility that ill-health prevents shopping.

    Clearly we want policy-makers to seek relevant and trustworthy expert advice, for example, to be topical, on the practicalities and economics of a lower carbon-emitting economy, a subject on which you are an expert. You are also expert on the number of other experts with whom you disagree in one form or another on the subject and possible rational policies.

    How much expert advice is there out there suggesting that hurricanes and extreme weather events are increasing and that billions should be spent defending against the effects of these increases?

    1 If you were a policy-maker, how would you distinguish between the sensible and trustworthy expert, let’s call him RPJr, and the many whose advice really isn’t terribly useful or practical?

    2 Do you feel that in general policy-makers don’t take good advice, that they ignore it, or that other political considerations (fair enough) means it must be ignored?

    3 What evidence is there that ‘ …… policy makers appear to lack an understanding of how they can tap into expertise to inform decision making.’

    (Re John Gummer, his Wiki entry carries other amusing stories – he was called a ‘drittsekk’ by Norway’s Environment Minister (I dare not translate), and was caught in the Parliamentary expenses scandal for claiming for mole-catching and jackdaw nest removal equipment. He also was behind our fabulously practical Climate Change Act.)

  2. Roger,

    I think you are confusing 'policy making' and 'governing'.

    In governing disaffected populations are problematic. As soon as some segment of the population feels as though their government doesn't 'hear them' then we end up with protests, riots and civil unrest.

    In functioning countries our 'leaders' know this and do their best to demonstrate that the views of all the population are being 'vigorously debated'.

    That includes the views of the village idiot.

    I would note the South Koreans have fistfights in their parliament. Their leaders actually 'fight' for their constituents causes.

    The RNC used to have a fairly sophisticated system. If you wrote a letter to any Senator supporting/opposing anything, some Senator would write you back with a long laundry list of all the things that were being done to address your concerns.

    If you sent in a letter in support of gun control you would get back a letter from a Senator working hard on gun control.

    If you sent in a letter opposing gun control you would get back a letter from a different Senator who was working hard on opposing gun control.

    The first order of business for any government is maintaining civil order. The village idiot that believes his/her voice isn't being heard is dangerous.

    The various people in the climate community who believe that the only voices that should be heard in the climate policy debate are 'informed scientists' are advocating(hopefully unintentionally) for civil unrest.

    Policy debates are academic if the result is that the government ends up being violently overthrown.

  3. Expertise is only valuable to the extent that it does not involve predictions. As has been documented extensively, expert predictions are no better than a chimp throwing darts.

    So ask an expert what the law is, but not what a change in the law is likely to mean to consumers. Or if you do ask, recognize that the expert has moved outside the scope of his expertise.

  4. Your point on Bachmann was off the mark. Govt stds on the size and thread pitch of the base of light bulbs is conducive to commerce. Outlawing incandescent bulbs is an ideological fetish. I think that was her point.

    Congress does not involve experts in dispassionate discussions of science and natural philosophy. Experts are invariably called to support or attack pre-defined positions, much like trial lawyers hiring experts to give authority to the theory of the case. ("My whore is smarter than your whore.")

    Everybody involved in the process has an ideological/policy preference. Typically the expert is the only person on the room who does not realize he has one too.