exploring expertise

Today, the notion of what constitutes “experts’ knowledge” and its role in the policy process has become significantly more nuanced than in the past. Since the beginning of the 1990s, social sciences have abandoned the long-held positivistic notion of expertise as neutral, rational and ready-made resource, in favour of what Robert Hoppe (1999) called an “argumentative” turn of policy enquiry, emphasizing the contextual, discursive and relational side of policymaking.

Retrospectively, we can say that the turn in policy analysis described by Hoppe – from the rationalistic ideal of “speaking the truth to power” to the argumentative effort of “making sense together” – is now complete: recent approaches in policy analysis, planning and housing studies seems to concur that the policy process cannot be understood as set of procedures implemented to achieve indisputable societal goals, but rather as a socio-political construct, whose dynamic is strictly dependent on the environment and field of relationships it acts upon.

If this is the case, the way knowledge is socially constructed and mobilised in the policy process represents not only a pressing theoretical concern, but also a crucial challenge for democratic societies.

This challenge can be addressed by focusing on two important issues, namely the development of policy models and their adaptation to specific socio-political contexts, and the role of policy experts in the policy process.

A first concern therefore relates to the way policy paradigms, practices and techniques are adopted in (and adapted to) specific contexts and policy sectors: How is a given set of professional knowledge and skills assembled and mobilized to support the policy process? And how timing and context of this adoption influence the dynamics of urban policy-making and its results? We know that policy paradigms, discourses, practices and techniques embody ideological and value assumptions that speak to us of the socio-political context in which they are born; at the same time, history tells us that these models travel between (and adapt to) a variety of local contexts. A crucial question is therefore why some models are adopted in specific social and historical contexts, and how the local environment mediates these transnational flows.

A second concern relates to the agency of policy experts (the ubiquitous non-elected professionals who apply “a particular body of knowledge, skills and techniques to the problems confronting [their] client”, Fischer 2009, 18) in the policy process. Policymakers dealing with complex, technical issues might hire policy experts; but to what extent does the experts’ role extend beyond the narrow boundaries of their professional training? And to what extent do they make a strategic use of their professional knowledge and status to steer the policy process? A vast literature has described so far policy experts as mediators “operating between the available analytic frameworks of social science, particular policy findings, and the differing perspectives of the public actors” (Fischer 2009, 11), mediators that should acknowledge the contingent and negotiated character of their own expertise. However, the role of experts in the policy process has been largely addressed through a normative orientation aimed at the identification of a set of “good professional practices” – and especially, following the success of deliberative and participative approaches, of practices that foster an open, productive discussion among the stakeholders. Policy experts, however, also play a less visible and inherently political role in the policy process; a role that is neither formally sanctioned nor budgeted (and therefore go largely unnoticed by standard policy evaluation procedures), and is largely removed from a narrow understanding of their professional role (i.e. adhering to the good professional practices and procedural standards). In other words, experts might join the policy arena because of their mastery of some form of professional knowledge; their agency, however, is also deployed through practical judgments, coalition-building, lobbying and political activism and, in general, a strategic use of their professional knowledge and status.

Fischer F (2009) Democracy and expertise: Reorienting policy inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hoppe R (1999) Policy analysis, science and politics: from ‘speaking truth to power’to ‘making sense together’, Science and public policy, 26(3), 201-210