The experts have entered public policy

For four years, EUREX researchers have studied the ‘expertization’ of the political order. The recently finished project shows how more and more academics find their way to the public committees.

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Public inquiry commissions are important instruments for modern governments when they are faced with complex issues. How do commission systems function, and how have they changed following the increased reliance on experts in politics and Europeanisation, the process by which national governance systems adapt to the EU and European norms?

Questions like these were the point of departure when in 2016 the EUREX research group set out to study the changing role of experts in public policy making and assess its effects on democracy and good governance.

Headed by professors Cathrine Holst from the University of Oslo and Johan Christensen from Leiden University, EUREX researchers have studied the evolving role of scientific expertise in the preparation of public policies in the Nordic countries from the 1970’s until today. Their findings shed light on the interplay between policy makers and policy advisers from public administration, academia, think tanks and more.

Bearings on democracy and good governance

The project has provided novel insights into the workings of knowledge regimes, the institutionalised practice of incorporating expert knowledge in policy making processes. The functioning of these systems is crucial for modern governments who rely on science-based advice to make informed decisions.

Moreover, how policy advice is organised has bearings not only on the quality of decisions. Who politicians ask for advice might have substantial democratic implications. Hence, it has been important for the project to take account of both the governance and democratic dimensions of expertisation.

Nordic knowledge regimes

There are numerous ways to channel expert knowledge into policy-making processes. The US model for example includes a diverse set of knowledge providers, both private and public. European models, on the other hand, are more public oriented. The focus of EUREX has been the Nordic knowledge regimes and temporary commissions of inquiry in particular.

'In Norway, we have mainly looked at the commissions that submit their reports as Norway’s public reports (the NOUs)', Cathrine Holst explains. A major finding is the increase in the proportion of academics in the committees, both as members and as committee leaders.

While, in the 1970s and 80s, commissions mostly consisted of bureaucrats and representatives of interest organisations, we now see that an increasing share of committee members and chairs tend to be academic experts, says Holst. A study by her colleagues Christensen and PhD Stine Hesstvedt finds that the inclusion of academic experts in inquiry commissions has increased as much as threefold.

It is not only the composition of the commissions that has changed. EUREX has identified ways in which commissions are ‘politicised’.

'We do for example find instances where the political leadership is "cherry picking" committee members', says Holst.

'Further, we find that both mandates and guidelines are sometimes formulated to direct attention away from politically sensitive issues and that the ministries and the political leadership exert control over the commissions through the secretariats.'

EUREX has also identified innovation and experimentation in inquiry commissions’ methods. According to Holst, ­within some policy areas, we see experimental use of digital platforms and inclusion of lay citizens.

Team effort

Holst is full of praise for the EUREX partners’ contribution to the project.

'It has been rewarding, both intellectually and academically, to head this project together with Johan Christensen, and to collaborate with super talented postdoc Eva Krick and PhD Stine Hesstvedt. I would also like to extend a warm thank you to our partners – the most active being Peter Munk Christiansen, Kathia Serrano Velarde and Åse Gornitzka – and to our competent research assistants, master students and ARENA’s impeccable research administration.'

Holst is also pleased with the attention her and her team’s research has received in academia and beyond. ­

'In all modesty, I believe we have provided research of a very high standard to international channels and at the same time been able to set the agenda in the Norwegian context. We have seen an unusually keen interest in the project from day one, both in Norway and abroad.'

For more EUREX research, Norwegian speakers may check out the webinar “Ekspertenes inntog” (Entry of the Experts).

Published Nov. 4, 2020 7:25 PM - Last modified Nov. 9, 2020 9:32 AM