Walking the tightrope: expert legitimacy as a navigation between technocracy and politics

Justyna Bandola-Gill

What makes experts legitimate in the eyes of policymakers? Even though this is one of the foundational questions of the interdisciplinary scholarship on evidence and policy, the answer is neither straightforward nor simple. Expert legitimacy is driven by seeming contradictions – experts have to be responsive to policymakers’ needs but, at the same time, they cannot be too close to politics. They have to provide advice which is strongly grounded in science but if their advice is too complex it risks being ignored or being perceived too ‘detached’ and ‘academic’. Experts are legitimate when they are insiders and outsiders at the same time.  This dynamic has become particularly evident in the ongoing pandemic, where government advisors have had to represent (and at times defend) science whilst at the same time accounting for what policy directions are ‘doable’ – publicly and politically acceptable and economically feasible.

This paradox – inherent to the experts’ work with the government – is shaped by two types of accountability. On the one hand, they are seen as legitimate because they are technocratic – they produce objective, value-free and highly technical knowledge. On the other hand, they are seen as legitimate when they are aligned with political accountability – they produce knowledge that is politically useful, relevant in specific contexts, one which prioritises relevance over methodological robustness.

My recent Evidence & Policy article, ‘The legitimacy of experts in policy: navigating technocratic and political accountability in the case of global poverty governance‘, tries to untangle this complexity and offer an empirically informed framework to think about this problem at three analytical levels: the epistemic, individual and institutional. The key quality of expert legitimacy I identify in this research is the constant navigation between technocratic and political accountability at all three levels. In this sense, the expert legitimacy is symbiotic – neither can dominate completely without risking losing the legitimacy.

Figure 1

The epistemic level refers to the qualities of knowledge produced and disseminated by the experts. This knowledge – and specific ‘knowledge tools’ such as indicators or models – have to be seen as both scientific and politically useable. For example, if a report is too technical, it risks being seen as too scientific and not useful to policymakers. On the other hand, if the report prioritises only the political relevance and the needs of the decision-makers, it risks being perceived as too political and not impartial.

At the individual level, the navigation between technocracy and politics is established via experts’ perceived distance to policymakers. Here, the experts have to be seen as close to the government (rather than ‘Ivory Tower’ academics) but not too close. In practice, it means being seen as informed insiders but not to the level of being perceived as having stakes in the decisions. Too close a distance was seen as risky to the credibility and independence of experts.

Finally, expert legitimacy is mediated by the institutions and their evidence cultures. This level of analysis is crucial for understanding the dynamics of the relationship between the policymakers and experts, and yet is often ignored in the literature. Here, the navigation between technocracy and politics is formalised into wider institutional structures. Organisations develop their own internal structures which might promote either a separation of these two logics (for example, by splitting expert roles into more technical and more political) or their integration (for example, by ceding the decision on which logic to draw upon in a given context to experts).

Overall, as argued in my article, expert legitimacy is indeed inherently paradoxical, and we should take this paradox seriously as an empirical object of our inquiry rather than merely a ‘problem’ to be dealt with. Better understanding how experts must navigate these conflicting logics might serve to guide researchers who wish to impact on policies. I argue that achieving this goal requires the experts to be ‘reflexive practitioners’ – to maintain epistemic humility and accept the limitations of scientific research, but also to open up the process of science advice to diversity of actors and forms of knowledge, going beyond the traditional academic structures. A successful navigation of these two accountabilities requires transparency regarding political goals, values and processes within the advisory bodies. It is this transparency, rather than complete submission to either science or politics, that makes experts legitimate.

Justyna Bandola-Gill is a Research Fellow in Social Policy at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Justyna works at the intersection of Science and Technology Studies and Public Policy. Her research explores the interactions between research and policy, especially the ways in which knowledge is organised, governed and mobilised across different settings in order to achieve political goals. Currently, Justyna is working on an ERC-funded project, METRO, exploring the global rise of metrological fields, where her research focuses on the production and governance of global poverty indicators by International Organisations.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Bandola-Gill, J. (2020). The legitimacy of experts in policy: navigating technocratic and political accountability in the case of global poverty governance. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X16000980489195.

Image credit: Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Knowledge mobilisation in public service reform: integrating empirical, technical and practical wisdom

Understanding, negotiating and navigating the politicisation of evidence-based policy research: the case of Irish research on lone parent labour market activation policy

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