Governments have often had difficulty with expert advice, whether the subject (among recent examples) has been climate change, the culling of badgers, flood defences, the effects of the work programme or the conclusions to drawn from criminal statistics.
Expertise and evidence are of different kinds, and there are different degrees of certainty in the conclusions that can be drawn from them. Difficult and complex decisions have to be made, often involving different kinds of expertise – academic, professional and institutional; and different considerations – scientific, social, and economic. Judgements have to be made about priorities, affordability and acceptability.
Experts’ conclusions will sometimes be disputed within their own discipline; they may be unpopular, unaffordable, or politically awkward for the government of the day. They may be influenced by their sponsors’ interests or their own career prospects. Commentators enjoy a story that ‘the experts have got it wrong’ or they ‘can’t be trusted’, and they may try to discredit experts as being part of a ‘metropolitan elite’.
Governments are naturally attracted by ‘evidence-based policy’, and the sometimes spurious authority and credibility which seem to go with it. But they are also ready to dismiss the evidence, or the need for evidence, if it does not suit their purposes (as when the riots in 2011 were dismissed as ‘pure criminality’).
They may appeal instead to ‘common sense’, or ‘what the public wants’, especially in criminal justice where much of the evidence is counter-intuitive. Matters that were once left to professional or administrative judgement are now treated as political issues, to be decided by ministers.
In some areas, including criminal justice, the government’s chief concern for public services is to devise and apply new theoretical models, especially models for involving the private sector. The expertise and experience of the services themselves is seen as largely irrelevant.
This situation is not a good place to be. Eric Hobsbawm described the tension between informed and popular opinion as ‘the challenge of the twenty-first century’. The next government would do well to reflect on the experiences of its predecessors; adopt a more understanding and respectful approach to expertise; and be ready to form more rounded and inclusive conclusions on its reliability and significance. Experts for their part should respond in the same spirit.
These are among the issues which will discussed in David Faulkner’s book, Servant of the Crown: A civil servant’s story of criminal justice and public service reform, to be published by Waterside Press on 14 July.