Guest post: Joanna Hanley "Whose knowledge counts?"

Last week I attended the conference “A Crisis of Expertise? Legitimacy and the challenge of policymaking” hosted by the Melbourne School of Government.  The premise of the conference was that modern societies are rapidly changing in response to a plethora of dynamic forces and as such, policy-making has to adjust. Simultaneously, trust in expert knowledge appears to be diminishing as the role of expertise and experts falls under the glare of scrutiny.  The conference sought to deeply and self-critically ponder questions such as what knowledge counts? What knowledge enhances social progress and cohesion? And What expertise will enhance policy-making?

The conference was highly stimulating and brought together a very impressive and eclectic group of academics and other researchers from across the globe.  The conference was undoubtedly, academically focused and absent from the discussion were other players who might also influence policy, NGOs being one such group.

NGOs are increasingly participating in politics and being seen as being important actors who can influence policy.  NGOs possess in-depth, contextual and often highly technical knowledge based upon experience into specialized, niche or obscure fields.  I refer to this as experience expertise.  This raises some interesting questions, such as, when academics and NGOs have an opinion on policy – whose knowledge counts? Who is influencing policy, academia or NGOs? and whose knowledge is considered the most valuable in shaping policy?

NGOs can be a valuable resource whose experience expertise allows them to help decision-makers understand the actual problems and realities of various policy implications.  Their in-depth knowledge can also allow them to re-frame the issues so as to be more in conjunction with decision-maker’s interests.

On the other hand, one cannot conflate activity and influence.  While NGOs appear to be more present, activity around negotiations does not automatically equate to influence and an NGOs power is limited to their ability to convince the actual players with formal decision-making power. NGOs do not hold the monopoly on technical knowledge and their focus on their particular (singular) cause can narrow their focus, making their view incompatible with competing broader social and economic perspectives.  This has the effect of impacting perceived value and when perceived value is reduced, this can result in limited inclusion at the negotiation table. NGOs certainly appear to have successfully exerted some influence on policy when their participation was encouraged, but were far less effective, if at all, when the negotiation environment was unsupportive of their involvement.

How then does academic expertise stack up against experience expertise?  Undoubtedly, our modern social systems have been highly influenced by experts and Frank Fischer goes so far as to assert that their advice to governance is even more critical as our society has become more complex.  There are a variety of examples throughout recent history where academic expertise has clearly influenced policy and been integral in resolving problems.

Many writers agree (as did many of the presenters at the conference) that there is a decline in confidence and respect for academia as experts.  Some of the reasons proffered in literature are that institutions for higher learning are perceived as commodified, self-serving monopolies more concerned with attendance than knowledge.  Scholarly institutions appear caged by a culture of overly technical theory and practices and jargon that makes their work irrelevant or inaccessible to policy-makers.

Is there, a difference between academic expertise and experience expertise? Whose knowledge is considered more valuable?  When policy decisions need to be made, they can be rapid, require secrecy and are accompanied by various complex factors that limit which outsiders might be called upon to offer expertise.  Undoubtedly both NGOs and academia have, at times, been able to influence policy, however, they each possess characteristics that impede their ability to influence, and the value of their respective knowledge will change depending on the context and attitudes towards their involvement.

What is clear, is that no one group has all the answers but tremendous gains can be garnered by improved bridges between the worlds of academia, NGOs and policy.  It is in this pivotal time where our complex society necessitates the melding of academic and experience expertise, fostering stronger engagement, collaboration and integration.  This will enhance the translation of ideas and concepts more effectively into policy and practice reducing inherent weaknesses within academia and NGOs.