Guest column | Pandemic unveils the politics of expertise

The Kovid-19 pandemic unleashed a global crisis that pushed for more expertise than ever before. Virologists, epidemiologists, and other health scientists were searched across the country to reset health policies to meet the needs of infectious disease. And, their formulations involving the coronavirus are not challenging. The epistemological authority of experts advocates restrictive measures even though they involve illness.

Policy adjustments during the epidemic were never quick. Traditional policy makers left much room for experts to have the epidemic and save the lives of millions. Also, the choice of knowledge and evidence was left to the experts, otherwise it was a political act. This may have caused some hidden discomfort to those who were rarely ignored or turned away, yet they continued to implement and implement measures proposed by experts to correct the situation.

Expertise is the collection of knowledge generated through research and analysis. This is unlike experience learning and repeated use of knowledge. Experience and practical use make a person learned and proficient but not an expert. Experts create knowledge, but policymakers use such knowledge. Artificial intelligence and climate change mitigation and adaptive measures are just a few examples of the knowledge created by experts but also apply through public policies. Political executives may accept or reject knowledge depending on their policy ambitions, popularity or contextual requirements. However, the epidemic did not leave them much choice.

A multidisciplinary process is required

Although not necessarily linear, policy formation involves a multidisciplinary process. Professor Eugene Bardach and Professor Eric M Patashnik have defined the eight-fold path, which begins with defining the problem and continues until the story is complete. Collection of data and evidence, construction of alternatives, selection of criteria, projection of results, dealing with trade-offs, and focus on impacts are other steps to complete the story.

At the time of the epidemic, the problem had defined itself with insufficient evidence and there was no time for data collection and research. Given the deadly nature of the virus, normal processes were not working. Existing and some indigenous knowledge, wisdom and practices have saved lives. The trial and error method is applied quite often. Vaccine research and formulation at lightning speed involves process-reduction, commonly known as bureaucratic procedures.

Experts followed their path and devised and redesigned policies implemented by political executives and bureaucrats. They also provided assessment and management support, otherwise it was the work of civil servants. Governments policies and enforcement efforts worked well and the epidemic is now almost endemic.

During the epidemic, policymaking unveiled a new debate on the politics of expertise. Exclusion theorists feel that the dominance of experts in an emergency, no matter how successful it is, cannot be made permanent. Their efforts during the epidemic demand that the role of experts in the making of public policies should no longer be too obvious.

There may be evidence that the political authorities did not hesitate to alienate the bureaucracy to suit the situation. And, baseless statements indicate that citizens are not willing to give up their traditional indirect role in policymaking. It may be difficult to deny that civil servants have played a crucial role in managing the crisis, but the lack of knowledge and information about a widespread new epidemic is a constraint. Active collaboration and participation of experts filled the gaps and supported the support of political executives to address the challenges.

Triangle strife in policymaking

The triangular strife is showing its signs in policy making. Some experienced and proficient civil servants consider their experience as expertise. Expert arrogance, on the other hand, has also increased. Some of them claim to be the only repository of knowledge. Political executives are sitting pretty and they get results and the support of their constituents.

Policymaking cannot remain in silo. It is not just the work of experts or civil servants. It requires multidisciplinary thoughts and actions for success. Experts create data and create evidence – digital or physical, and produce multiple options but these may not be embedded in one scenario, which is primarily a socio-political decision. They can define the cause of action and suggest a solution but cannot determine its appropriateness in the context. They can understand the economy of knowledge, but cannot use or disseminate knowledge without a clear understanding of the physical economy. The role of political executives is also important in achieving and maintaining democratic and civic influence and public essence in policies.

Politics of expertise is not the taboo of policymaking. Although we are transforming from the physical world to the virtual world, we must demand the availability of experts with the active participation of all stakeholders with respect and humility about humane values. Communication and networking with stakeholders can help narrow down knowledge and evidence choices. Such an endeavor not only enhances the credibility and acceptability of the process but also the policies.

Reduce bias in policy making

Knowledge cannot, in any case, be independent of asymmetric power relations. Prejudices and biases of individuals and organizations can interfere with and produce non-discriminatory policies. Efforts are needed to reduce bias in policy-making rather than expertise and innovation. All social actors – individuals and institutions must be mobilized into constellations of different forms of socially constructive power to pursue policy narratives with clearly shared moral priorities and material interests. It helps to create informed, evidence-based and inclusive policies, making the politics of expertise meaningless.

Writer, retired IAS officer, former Chief Secretary of Punjab Chief Minister. The opinions expressed are personal

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